Leaning on the Pisa tower of success

Leaning on the Pisa tower of success
Mr Andreas Schleicher, who has overseen the triennial test for 15-year-olds since it was launched in 2000, stresses that students from across the spectrum are tested, not just those who are smarter or from better schools. So in Singapore, the teenagers tested came from all streams and more than 160 schools, including madrasahs.

PARIS - Andreas Schleicher does not mince his words when asked about those who want to know why Shanghai or Singapore teenagers perform so well in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), an influential global benchmarking test he oversees.

"When an American or European wins an Olympic gold medal, we cheer them. When a Chinese does, we say it must have been due to doping or the result of inhumane training," the education adviser to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) tells The Sunday Times in an interview.

"I have been asked many times about the sampling done in Asian countries, including Singapore. Pisa provides all the technical data in detail. Pisa results are based on robust and internationally comparable data. They have been carefully designed and validated."

Students from across the spectrum are tested, he stresses, not just those who are smarter or from better schools. So in Singapore, the teenagers tested came from all streams and more than 160 schools, including Islamic religious schools or madrasahs.

To those who suspect the Pisa results, he says: "So we have to ask ourselves are these countries cheating? Or are we cheating ourselves?"

He has overseen the triennial test for 15-year-olds since it was launched in 2000. East Asian students, including those from Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong, have held pole positions and even moved up, triggering a wave of anxiety among parents, teachers and politicians in Western nations.

In the last test, held in 2012, Shanghai students were ranked first in mathematics, science and reading while their peers in Singapore came in second in mathematics and third in science and reading. In another test on problem-solving taken by students from 44 economies, Singapore came in first, followed by South Korea, Japan, Macau, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Except for Finland, Western nations have turned in middling performances at best. In Pisa 2012, American students ranked 36th, performing below the OECD average for mathematics, and average for reading and science.

Over the years, the tests, dubbed by some as "the World Cup for education", have become increasingly influential with many nations using the outcomes to drive changes in their school systems. But Pisa has also come under increasing scrutiny and even attacks from academics and educators.

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