The triennial Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test results are out again and, as usual, many in the West European countries — parents, employers, governments — are worried that East Asian 15 year-olds occupy pretty well all the top spots in maths, science and reading comprehension whereas Western schoolchildren find themselves scattered almost everywhere in the middle ranges. They really ought not to be worried, because it is not comparing like with like.
East Asian results — sometimes quite spectacular — are gained from rote learning many hours a day under authoritarian teachers, plus in many, if not most, cases extra cramming. In comparison, teaching and learning in Western secondary schools, private and state, is laid back, almost casual, in style. However, some schools in both sectors — albeit only a handful — manage to produce results which are as good as the best Asian schools.
So are PISA tests a good method of judging the merits of either system? Hardly! About 300 European-born scientists have won Nobel prizes in science in the last century whereas only about a dozen Asian researchers have done so. Also, every year, 200,000 Asian parents send their children to be educated in England and America. None go in the other direction except for a few who want to become perfect Mandarin speakers.
The data gathered from PISA tests will be useful to future economic historians no doubt, but little more can be claimed for them at the present time.