PISA: What about the rest of China?
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December 18, 2011, 03:33 PM
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The news that two states in India took the PISA test of 15-year-olds` school achievement in 2009 and bombed raises the question once again of China. As everybody remembers from a year ago, 2009 scores from Shanghai were released and they were higher than any country in the world. But what about the rest of China? Obviously, Shanghai is a dazzling place, but a lot of China is still stuck knee-deep in rice paddies. What about them? 
I stumbled upon this year-old blog post by Anatoly Karlin of Sublime Oblivion, which relays a big hint:
As regular blog readers know, I think that educational capital and more broadly average IQ levels are one of the key – and frequently under-appreciated due to political correctness – determinants of economic development and whether or not convergence to developed country levels is even possible. Its much higher educational capital is one of the key reasons why I think China will continue doing much better than India in development, regardless of its “democratic deficit.” However, many people argue that China’s human capital must actually be quite low, because it doesn’t spend much on education, resources are bare in the provinces, statistical fudging under unaccountable governors, etc. 
The recent results from the international standardized PISA tests in math, reading and science will make this an increasingly untenable position. Shanghai got by far the best results out of all the OECD countries (never mind the developing ones). . Now while you might (rightly) argue Shanghai draws much of the elite of the Yangtze river delta, the Financial Times has more: “Citing further, as-yet unpublished OECD research, Mr Schleicher said: “We have actually done Pisa in 12 of the provinces in China. Even in some of the very poor areas you get performance close to the OECD average.”” 
Since countries like the US and France get scores “close to the OECD average”, this means that the workforces soon to be entering China’s economy, even from its poorest regions, will be no less skilled than those of leading Western economies (note too that the numbers of Chinese university graduates are soaring). And with China’s massive population, four times bigger than America’s, its road to superpowerdom must be all but guaranteed.
Okay, there are a few leaps of faith there, but that`s still news worth knowing. At minimum, it reduces the chances that the Shanghai numbers were a con job. At median, it suggests that we check twice before reflexively equating China and India. At maximum, it suggests, as Karlin says, that "resource constraints" are going to be perhaps the big issue of the 21st Century. It`s a little hard to be certain what "Even in some of the very poor areas you get performance close to the OECD average" means, but it sounds pretty good.
The logic of using international test scores to predict future wealth is not that the causation runs only in one direction, from high test scores to wealth. Obviously, it runs in both directions. (For example, affluent Chinese have traditionally hired tutors to raise their children`s test results.) But, if there are a whole bunch of poor farm kids in inland China who are scoring like kids in Europe and North America right now, well, that`s worth knowing.