Originally published on Brooking Institution's Brown Center Chalkboard, December 19, 2019.
The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) administers tests in reading, math, and science to 15-year-olds around the world. The latest results were released earlier this month in Paris. Angel Gurria, secretary general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), PISA’s parent organization, opened the proceedings.
Gurria praised the performance of Beijing-Shanghai-Jiangsu-Zhejiang (B-S-J-Z), the four Chinese provinces participating in the test, for having the highest scores in all three subjects and pointed out that their combined population of 180 million would make them one of the largest nations in OECD. The international PISA report begins with the observation that the reading performance of the most disadvantaged students in B-S-J-Z exceeded the average student in the OECD, an organization comprising the world’s wealthiest economies. These are indeed remarkable accomplishments. But they are not the whole story. What was said in Paris and described in the PISA report is eclipsed by what was not said and will never be reported in a PISA document.
China’s national population totals about 1.4 billion, so even though 180 million is a lot of people, it is only 13% of the nation. Put another way, children living among 1.2 billion Chinese could not participate in PISA. Much of that population lives in rural China, where the majority of China’s children are growing up. B-S-J-Z are highly urbanized provinces along the country’s east coast. In the 2018 PISA, only 4.9% of the tested students in B-S-J-Z lived in rural areas or villages with fewer than 3,000 people.
Chinese authorities approve the provinces that participate in PISA. In 2015, Guangdong, rather than Zhejiang, had been the fourth participating Chinese province. Once Guangdong had been swapped out for Zhejiang, the 2018 scores from China shot up by at least 60 scale score points in the three PISA subjects, an unprecedented event. Chinese education experts attributed the leap in test scores to the change in provinces, pointing out that Guangdong has a lot of migrant workers and “the northern part of the province is also a bit like inner China.”
As Kam Wing Chan and other scholars of China have argued, there is not one but two Chinas: one urbanized, mainly on the east coast, and rapidly growing in wealth; the other rural, in the interior of China or on the move as migrants, and mired in poverty. (As a rough proxy, recent population numbers put the Chinese rural share at 41%). PISA assesses achievement of the first China and ignores the second one.
The journal Science ran a 2017 feature story on Scott Rozelle, an economist at Stanford and director of the Rural Education Action Program (REAP). The project implements programs designed to improve health and education in rural China, also conducting research on the programs’ effectiveness. Over several years, REAP administered 19 surveys involving about 133,000 children in 10 poor provinces. The surveys revealed 27% of kids suffering from anemia, 33% with intestinal worms, and 20% struggling with uncorrected myopia.
Percentages like that add up to staggering numbers over a large population. Rozelle predicts 400 million future working-age Chinese are “in danger of becoming cognitively handicapped.” A 2015 study supports Rozelle’s hypothesis, estimating that nearly 60% of elementary-age children in China possess at least one health or nutritional deficiency that can stunt early cognitive development.
School attendance is a problem in rural China, especially for families who cannot afford tuition. (Academic high schools typically charge the highest tuition.) An analysis that combined several studies of rural schooling conducted from 2007 to 2013 found cumulative dropout rates between 17% and 31% in junior high schools. About half of the students matriculated to high school, and only 37% went on to graduate.
Children who attend rural school face poorly resourced facilities and ill-prepared teachers. And rural classes are enormous. A 2017 study found a primary school in Henan with 113 pupils per class. In 27 provinces, the average high school classes were larger than 45 students—the national standard—and in 12 provinces, the average was more than 55 students. The Chinese government has set a goal of classes no larger than 56 students by 2020.
Marc Tucker counsels Americans to fear China’s future economic dominance. In a press release commenting on the 2018 PISA scores, Tucker states, “China is now poised to overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy. It is hard to see how the United States can compete with a far larger country that has a much better educated workforce that charges much less than we do for labor.”
Several economists disagree with Tucker’s outlook. Hongbin Li and colleagues argued in the Journal of Economic Perspectives that national funding of free high school would boost high school enrollments in rural China and thereby help the whole country. Niny Khor of the Asia Development Bank co-authored a 2017 study, “China’s Looming Human Capital Crisis,” arguing that China’s “shockingly poor” educational attainment rates—held down by substandard education in rural areas—may hinder the country’s transition from middle-income to high-income status. China lags other middle-income countries, such as Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa, on that indicator, which reports the average number of years of education completed by a population.
In the 2010 census data, for example, only 24% of Chinese adults had “some” upper secondary (high school) education or more. The data are skewed by an aging population that was lucky, several decades ago, to receive formal education beyond the primary grades; however, the same attainment rate for 20-year-olds was just 51%, lagging far behind most high-income countries. Surely the 2020 census data will show improvement, but it’s important to note that the 20-year-old cohort of 2010 will still be in the workforce 30 years from now. It’s also certain that China’s economic future is inseparable from improving educational opportunities for the country’s rural youth.
PISA and equity
In his Paris speech, Secretary General Gurria observed, “Without access to affordable, high-quality education, people at the bottom of the income distribution are left to languish in the margins of society with little hope for upward mobility.” OECD-PISA has decided to ignore the young people of rural China, many of whom are languishing in the margins of society. It has chosen to leave them out of the PISA assessment, pretend they do not exist, and stay silent on the barriers these vulnerable children face in receiving a high-quality education.