International PISA test misconceptions (lies, lies and more lies) when comparing the US public schools to the world

On December 4, 2013, a New York Times headline shouted: “Shanghai Students Again Top Global Test”, and once again, America’s vocal critics of the U.S. Public Schools called for more reforms.

Not so fast. In fact, maybe not at all.

In China, the first nine years of education is compulsory starting before age 7. Primary school takes the first six of those nine years; then there’s middle school for grades 7, 8, and 9.

Fifteen is the age of students who take the international PISA test—and in China [so-called] compulsory education ends at the age of fifteen and students who decide to stay in school have a choice between a vocational or academic senior high school track. That’s where the choice ends because in China the senior high schools pick students based on merit.

To explain how this works, the CCP has acknowledged a “9-6-3 rule”. This means that nine of ten children began primary school between the ages of 6 and 7; six complete the first five years and three graduate from sixth grade with good performance.

By the time a student reaches senior high school—grades 10, 11, and 12—most enrollment is in the cities and not in rural China. Most rural Chinese don’t value education as much as urban Chinese do. And many of the migrant urban workers from rural China still have some family back in the village where they often leave their younger children. And many migrant workers, when they retire from factory work, return to the village and the family home.

The United States, by comparison, keeps most kids in school until the end of high school at age 17/18. About 75% graduate on time and another 15% earn their high school diploma or equivalent GED by age 24—all on an academic track because there is no vocational public schools k to 12 in the U.S.

In addition, in China there is the Zhongkao, the Senior High School Entrance Examination, held annually to distinguish the top students who then are admitted to the highest performing senior high schools. This means that if the highest rated high school in Shanghai has 1,000 openings for 10th graders, the students who earn the top 1,000 scores on the Zhongkao get in and then the second highest rated high school takes the next batch of kids until the lowest rated senior high school in Shanghai gets the kids with the bottom scores on the Zhongkao.

Maybe actual numbers will help clarify what this means:

In 2010, 121 million children attended China’s primary schools with another 78.4 million in junior and senior secondary schools. That total is 199.4 million kids.

According to World Education News & Reviews: “In 2010, senior high schools [in China] accommodated 46.8 million students (23.4% of the  199.5 million). But about 52 percent or only 40.8 million were enrolled in general senior high school, and 48 percent of those students were attending vocational senior high schools.”

That leaves 21.2 million enrolled in the senior high school academic track designed to prep kids for college—that’s 10.6% of the total. Then consider that Shanghai’s public schools are the best in China. This means that the fifteen-year-old students who take the international PISA in China are the elite of the elite attending China’s best public schools.

For a fair comparison—not what we’ll hear from the critics of public education in the United States—the Economic Policy Institute reports: “The U.S. administration of the most recent international (PISA) test resulted in students from the most disadvantaged schools being over-represented in the overall U.S. test-taker sample. This error further depressed the reported average U.S. test score. … But U.S. students from advantaged social class backgrounds perform better relative to their social class peers in the top-scoring countries [Canada, Finland, South Korea, France, Germany and the U.K.]” and “U.S. students from disadvantaged social class backgrounds perform better relative to their social class peers in the three similar post-industrial countries.”

In fact, “U.S. students from advantaged social class backgrounds perform better relative to their social class peers in the top-scoring countries of Finland and Canada. … and—on average—for almost every social class group, U.S. students do relatively better in reading than in math, compared to students in both the top-scoring and the similar post-industrial countries.”


Lloyd Lofthouse is a former U.S. Marine, Vietnam Veteran and English-journalism teacher.

His latest novel is the multi-award winning Running with the Enemy that started life as a memoir and then became a fictional suspense thriller. Blamed for a crime he did not commit while serving in Vietnam, his country considers him a traitor. Ethan Card is a loyal U.S. Marine desperate to prove his innocence or he will never go home again.

And the woman he loves and wants to save was trained to hate and kill Americans.

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6 responses to “International PISA test misconceptions (lies, lies and more lies) when comparing the US public schools to the world”

  1. Why isn’t the media reporting this?

    1. Because 90% of the traditional media is now owned and controlled by six corporations and their while, male CEO’s who are paid eight figure incomes, and those corporations rely on revenue from the billionaires and corporations out to destroy the U.S. public schools and profit off of OUR children. In fact, many of the major newspapers and TV networks are owned or controlled be the same people who are funding the war on the public schools.

      For instance, in California Eli Broad wants to buy the two largest newspapers in Southern California: The Los Angeles Times and the major paper in San Diego in addition, Bill Gates funds a special education section in the major paper in Seattle—through their wealth and power they influence what those newspapers report about public education in the U.S.

  2. Why is it that the government and the media can’t give us a balance picture with all the facts? This is an eye opener, revealing.

    1. The answer to that question is complex. It would probably take a book.

  3. It’s just so sad that most Americans would rather accept the daily dose of condensed facts rather than get a more complete picture. When it comes to education, we are systematically being misled by figure manipulation and interpretation. It isn’t just how we stack up internationally either. The use of test scores to support the position that teachers don’t earn their keep is widespread and very troubling. I’m glad you took the time to try and put some facts forward. I hope that some skeptics will read this post and actually try to absorb the truth for once.

    1. Thank you, but I suspect the skeptics who have already bought the propaganda that public school teachers are incompetent, the public schools are failing and the teachers unions are the reason have already drank that Kool-Aid and it may be too late.

      Then there is the average American parent who needs someone else to blame—-a scapegoat—for their lousy parenting methods that allows the average American kid to spend more than 10 hours a day dividing all that free time up watching TV, playing video games, social networking, texting, etc.

      Next there’s all the dysfunctional parents who don’t fit the average but are worse. Many of them don’t read, may be illiterate or functionally illiterate and live in poverty and they also need someone to blame and thanks to the billionaire critics of public education, they have been handed a ready-made scapegoat.

      However, like Abraham Lincoln said,”You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

      We can only hope that enough Americans wake up and stop the campaigns to destroy the democratically run public schools in the United States.

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