Macau’s rapid education improvement has a dark side

Macau’s rapid rise into the top three in the latest round of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), announced earlier this week, has been described by the education authority as a remarkable success and confirmation that recent efforts from the government are yielding results. But there is another side to the latest results, which suggest that Macau students are among the least satisfied and least confident in the world.
Held every three years, the most recent PISA assessment in 2018 tested 15-year-olds in 79 education systems around the world and ranked them by their reading, mathematics and scientific literacies. Macau earned the third-highest spot in each literacy ranking, rising from sixth, twelfth and third, respectively, for scientific literacy, reading literacy and mathematical literacy in the 2015 assessment.
In two additionally impressive feats, Macau was shown to have one of the largest percentage of top performers in each of the three tested subjects, as well as one of the lowest percentage of low performers.
In reading literacy, the focus of PISA 2018, Macau possesses a strong separation between the performance of students and their socio-economic status. The proportion of disadvantaged students who are “academically resilient” to their socio-economic status is almost double that of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average.
Teresa Vong, an associate professor of education at the University of Macau, told the Times that the assessment has become a “leading force in transforming our educational landscape.” Commenting on this week’s result, the academic also said that it “demonstrates a very big effort committed both by the DSEJ and local schools” to improve the quality of education.
However, a set of secondary and tertiary indicators released alongside the main results this week tell a more complex story.
The results reveal Macau to be a city of educational extremes, sitting either among the top few of the 79 sampled countries and territories or the bottom few, depending on the metric or sub-metric considered.
According to the OECD website, while the latest assessment shows that a very high proportion of Macau students were reported to have not skipped classes nor arrived late for school in the two weeks prior to the test, the average level of a local student’s life satisfaction proved one of the lowest among the countries and economies participating in PISA.
The 2018 assessment also found that, in Macau, “a large proportion of students reported always feeling sad” and that “15-year-old students have a strong fear of failure”, with both scores also ranking third-highest worldwide. They were also the second least likely to “believe in their own ability to perform, especially facing adversity.”
In the previous report, Macau was found to have one of the highest incidences of school bullying among the sampled countries and territories. Little improvement was made this year as the territory remains a place where only “a small percentage of students strongly agreed that it is a good thing to help students who can’t defend themselves.”
Speaking to the Times, Professor Vong drew attention to an apparent contradiction in the Macau student: that she performs among the best in the world and yet seems to enjoy her studies the least.
The academic called on the education authority to examine “what makes students go further in the long run.”

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