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Students attend class at a school in Hefei, capital of east China's Anhui province. Photo: Xinhua

Mainland Chinese students best in world as Singapore, Hong Kong slip down rankings

  • The results of the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) survey were announced on Tuesday
  • It found 15-year-olds from Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang outperformed those from 78 other education systems
Students from mainland China have edged out those from Singapore to take the top spot in a global benchmarking test, according to results announced on Tuesday.

The latest edition of the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) survey, conducted last year, assessed the performance of 15-year-olds from 79 education systems around the world in science, mathematics and reading.

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Students from the four participating cities in mainland China – Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang – came first in all three categories, with 590 points in science, 591 points in mathematics, and 555 points in reading.

Those from the Lion City, meanwhile, scored 551, 569 and 549, respectively, taking second place. In the last survey, conducted in 2015, they came first.

The mean scores for all students that took part in the triennial assessment by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) were 489 points in science, 489 in maths and 487 in reading. Between 4,000 and 8,000 students from each education system were assessed.

In this year’s edition, Hong Kong – where 6,037 students from 152 schools were randomly selected for the assessment – was also nudged down in the charts, ranking fourth in mathematics and reading, and ninth in science. American students, meanwhile, placed 13th in reading, 37th in mathematics, and 18th in science.

Angel Gurria, secretary general of the OECD, wrote in the opening remarks of the report that mainland Chinese students have “outperformed by a large margin” their peers from other countries, particularly in mathematics and science.

He noted, however, that the four cities whose students were assessed did not represent “China as a whole”, but that their sizes and make-up were comparable to a typical OECD country.

Students attend class at a school in the northeastern US state of Massachusetts. Photo: Reuters

“What makes their achievement even more remarkable is that the level of income of these four Chinese regions is well below the OECD average. The quality of their schools today will feed into the strength of their economies tomorrow,” he said.

Jason Tan, an associate professor at Singapore’s National Institute of Education, described the results of the survey as unsurprising given how “highly developed” the four mainland China cities that were included are, saying that they bore similarities to Singapore.

“We are looking at very urban populations, school leaderships and teachers who are driven to get students to do well in exams. You’ve got parents who are eager to help support their children in their efforts to perform well in school. You’ve got very similar sorts of factors,” he said.

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Other cities in mainland China, however, lack some of these resources and differ in terms of wealth, educational performance and “parental pressure”, he said.

“I would say that there is still an urban-rural gap in a country that size. There are some regions, like those four cities, that are doing extremely well but at the same time there are other regions of the country that still have a long way to go,” Tan added.

The report also highlighted issues in Singapore’s education system, such as how low-performing students are clustered in certain schools as well as how socio-economically advantaged students outperformed disadvantaged ones.

Singapore’s education ministry in a statement on Tuesday said that there are efforts in place to help low-income families, but it would continue to direct more resources to schools with greater needs, such as those that cater to “low-progress or financially needy students”.

The latest Pisa survey comes amid changes in the way people read and exchange information in the digital era. Photo: Bloomberg

Singapore's Education Minister Ong Ye Kung added in a post on Facebook that he was happy that students, including those who were less well-off, continued to do well. While top marks in international rankings was not an end-goal, this sort of benchmarking was useful to gauge Singapore's position vis-à-vis other countries, he said.

“And to reflect on where we can improve, such as making education more holistic, inculcating greater joy for learning, and creating an environment where failure is more accepted.”

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, the city’s Pisa score for science is evidence of the need “to improve our science education programme at secondary schools, especially in this day and age of STEM,” said Hau Kit-tai, professor of educational psychology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, referencing the popular acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

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Hau pointed out that the number of pupils choosing to study science has fallen since the new Hong Kong Diploma for Secondary Education curriculum was introduced in 2012. He suggested promoting science to younger students and making the subject an elective in secondary school to increase uptake.

However, a note of caution on the Pisa scores was sounded by Nutsa Kobakhidze, assistant professor of comparative and international education at the University of Hong Kong.

“Governments should not view the rankings as a report card of their education systems because education is way more complex than what Pisa can measure,” she said. “They should resist pressures from the rankings and racing with each other to top the chart.”

The latest Pisa survey comes against a backdrop of a shift in skills, including changes in the ways in which people read and exchange information in the digital era.

Pisa said it will expand the range of its survey metrics to include areas such as creative thinking in the next edition in 2021, and “learning the digital world” in 2024.

Additional reporting by Kathleen Magramo

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Mainland pupils top global class ahead of Lion City