Shanghai's PISA Test Scores Aren't Meaningless, But May Involve Some Cheating

Business Insider has a piece called Why Shanghai's Amazing Test Scores Are 'Almost Meaningless'. By Max Nisen, December 3, 2013. By meaningless, he means unrepresentative of China as a whole.

There are a few reasons that comparing other countries with Shanghai simply doesn't work, and that any headline discussing "China's" PISA scores should be ignored.

  • Shanghai is already the home of China's elite, and there are restrictions that keep migrant students out of municipal schools.
  • It makes up less than 2% of the country's population.
  • The teachers there are paid more than double what those in outlying provinces make, and schools are significantly better funded.
  • Shanghai's per capita GDP is more than double the national average, and parents spend large sums on outside tutoring.
  • About 84% of Shanghai high school graduates go to college, according to Brookings, compared to 24% nationally. That means they pass China's extremely tough college entrance exam. 
  • Test scores are emphasized as important and a source of national pride, significantly motivating students and teachers to perform

What this really means is that Shanghai, as the home of China's meritocratic elite, has gifted their schoolchildren with really smart parents. I'm also impressed by the fact that China has "restrictions that keep migrant students out of municipal schools"—a similar restriction would raise the average of American test scores. America can't even keep illegal immigrants out of municipal schools.

No, there are two reasons to be a little suspicious of Shanghai's soaring PISA scores

  • China has been testing for thousands of years. That has made them smarter, but it also means that some of the smartest people in China have spent years figuring out how to beat the test. There are regular cheating scandals.
  • China's rank on the Corruption Perceptions Index 2013 in the Transparency.org poll is 80, where  "0 means that a country is perceived as highly corrupt." China is more corrupt than Italy, Brazil, Kuwait and Rumania, and is tied with Greece. Shanghai is the home of Chinese party apparatchiks and corrupt businessmen. Their sons can confidently be expected to do well on tests, no matter how much they're regressed to the mean.