In PISA Test, Top Scores From Shanghai Stun Experts

Top Test Scores From Shanghai Stun Educators

With China’s debut in international standardized testing, students in Shanghai have surprised experts by outscoring their counterparts in dozens of other countries, in reading as well as in math and science, according to the results of a respected exam.

American officials and Europeans involved in administering the test in about 65 countries acknowledged that the scores from Shanghai — an industrial powerhouse with some 20 million residents and scores of modern universities that is a magnet for the best students in the country — are by no means representative of all of China.

About 5,100 15-year-olds in Shanghai were chosen as a representative cross-section of students in that city. In the United States, a similar number of students from across the country were selected as a representative sample for the test.

Experts noted the obvious difficulty of using a standardized test to compare countries and cities of vastly different sizes. Even so, they said the stellar academic performance of students in Shanghai was noteworthy, and another sign of China’s rapid modernization.

The results also appeared to reflect the culture of education there, including greater emphasis on teacher training and more time spent on studying rather than extracurricular activities like sports.

“Wow, I’m kind of stunned, I’m thinking Sputnik,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., who served in President Ronald Reagan’s Department of Education, referring to the groundbreaking Soviet satellite launching. Mr. Finn, who has visited schools all across China, said, “I’ve seen how relentless the Chinese are at accomplishing goals, and if they can do this in Shanghai in 2009, they can do it in 10 cities in 2019, and in 50 cities by 2029.”

The test, the Program for International Student Assessment, known as PISA, was given to 15-year-old students by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based group that includes the world’s major industrial powers.

The results are to be released officially on Tuesday, but advance copies were provided to the news media a day early.

“We have to see this as a wake-up call,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview on Monday.

“I know skeptics will want to argue with the results, but we consider them to be accurate and reliable, and we have to see them as a challenge to get better,” he added. “The United States came in 23rd or 24th in most subjects. We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated.”

In math, the Shanghai students performed in a class by themselves, outperforming second-place Singapore, which has been seen as an educational superstar in recent years. The average math scores of American students put them below 30 other countries.

PISA scores are on a scale, with 500 as the average. Two-thirds of students in participating countries score between 400 and 600. On the math test last year, students in Shanghai scored 600, in Singapore 562, in Germany 513, and in the United States 487.

In reading, Shanghai students scored 556, ahead of second-place Korea with 539. The United States scored 500 and came in 17th, putting it on par with students in the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and several other countries.

In science, Shanghai students scored 575. In second place was Finland, where the average score was 554. The United States scored 502 — in 23rd place — with a performance indistinguishable from Poland, Ireland, Norway, France and several other countries.

The testing in Shanghai was carried out by an international contractor, working with Chinese authorities, and overseen by the Australian Council for Educational Research, a nonprofit testing group, said Andreas Schleicher, who directs the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s international educational testing program.

Mark Schneider, a commissioner of the Department of Education’s research arm in the George W. Bush administration, who returned from an educational research visit to China on Friday, said he had been skeptical about some PISA results in the past. But Mr. Schneider said he considered the accuracy of these results to be unassailable.

“The technical side of this was well regulated, the sampling was O.K., and there was no evidence of cheating,” he said.

Mr. Schneider, however, noted some factors that may have influenced the outcome.

For one thing, Shanghai is a huge migration hub within China. Students are supposed to return to their home provinces to attend high school, but the Shanghai authorities could increase scores by allowing stellar students to stay in the city, he said. And Shanghai students apparently were told the test was important for China’s image and thus were more motivated to do well, he said.

In PISA Test, Top Scores From Shanghai Stun Experts

In PISA Test, Top Scores From Shanghai Stun Experts

“Can you imagine the reaction if we told the students of Chicago that the PISA was an important international test and that America’s reputation depended on them performing well?” Mr. Schneider said. “That said, China is taking education very seriously. The work ethic is amazingly strong.”

In a speech to a college audience in North Carolina, President Obama recalled how the Soviet Union’s 1957 launching of Sputnik provoked the United States to increase investment in math and science education, helping America win the space race.

“Fifty years later, our generation’s Sputnik moment is back,” Mr. Obama said. With billions of people in India and China “suddenly plugged into the world economy,” he said, nations with the most educated workers will prevail. “As it stands right now,” he said, “America is in danger of falling behind.”

If Shanghai is a showcase of Chinese educational progress, America’s showcase would be Massachusetts, which has routinely scored higher than all other states on America’s main federal math test in recent years.

But in a 2007 study that correlated the results of that test with the results of an international math exam, Massachusetts students scored behind Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. Shanghai did not participate in the test.

A 259-page Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report on the latest Pisa results notes that throughout its history, China has been organized around competitive examinations. “Schools work their students long hours every day, and the work weeks extend into the weekends,” it said.

Chinese students spend less time than American students on athletics, music and other activities not geared toward success on exams in core subjects. Also, in recent years, teaching has rapidly climbed up the ladder of preferred occupations in China, and salaries have risen. In Shanghai, the authorities have undertaken important curricular reforms, and educators have been given more freedom to experiment.

Ever since his organization received the Shanghai test scores last year, Mr. Schleicher said, international testing experts have investigated them to vouch for their accuracy, expecting that they would produce astonishment in many Western countries.

“This is the first time that we have internationally comparable data on learning outcomes in China,” Mr. Schleicher said. “While that’s important, for me the real significance of these results is that they refute the commonly held hypothesis that China just produces rote learning.”

“Large fractions of these students demonstrate their ability to extrapolate from what they know and apply their knowledge very creatively in novel situations,” he said.

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HIGHLIGHT (what’s this?)
Peter L Ruden
Savannah, GA
December 7th, 2010
7:52 am
Even if the results from Shanghai are skewed in some way, there is no denying that the Chinese students did extremely well in the testing while American students on the whole did not perform nearly as well, placing about 24th on most tests. Making education and teaching training and teacher salaries a priority and shifting spending to fund these things like a priority instead of whining about the cost should be an obvious answer. Improving our public education to once again make it the best in the world should be a goal, not figuring out how to sabotage it in favor of someone’s precious private school. If students in Massachusetts can perform at a level that is competitive with the rest of the world then they are doing something that the rest of the United States could learn from.

But the other thing that needs to change somehow is our attitude toward the value of education. Parents and students need to take a look at the importance that the Chinese and many countries in Asia place upon education. Without a change in how our students and their families think about schooling the necessary desire to learn will not be present in our schools.

HIGHLIGHT (what’s this?)
Bob Fonow
Beijing, China
December 7th, 2010
7:54 am
This is not a surprise to anyone who lives in China. In Europe and the United States students are taught according to a model that has existed since The Elightenment. A well developed mind is one that functions in a broad range of circumstances, and includes even sport and performing arts. In China students in elite schools are taught what is necessary to master examinations. The system is designed to get elite Chinese students into top US and UK universities, nothing comparable exists in China yet, and it’s supplemented by after school and weekend tutoring, often by graduates of elite European and US institutions – not just English, but sciences and mathematics. Parents from the educated elite remove all impediments to study.

On the other I haven’t met children anywhere that are as excited about learning as Chinese children, especially those who can expect that money is not a issue for higher education abroad, and there seem to be a lot of those today.

HIGHLIGHT (what’s this?)
December 7th, 2010
8:18 am
While I applaud them for focusing on teacher training, this disturbs me:

“more time spent on studying rather than extracurricular activities like sports”

Not only are extracurriculars FUN, especially in the case of team sports, teach students how to communicate and work collectively and productively toward a goal. You will never get that when you’re squirreled away in a small room hunched over books. As a child of Chinese immigrants, I know very well what it is like to have to do schoolwork 7 days a week – being able to do arithmetic faster than the other kids didn’t make me a better person. All that time stuffing a child’s brain with facts is time robbed of them to figure out things for themselves, to be creative. The US could benefit a lot by supporting more innovative techniques in traditional classroom teaching as well as encouraging curriculum that is geared toward creating and problem solving, not rote memorization of facts. Without the ability to synthesize that information, those facts will only take a student so far.

As a rapidly industrializing nation, there has also been a huge spike in first-world diseases in China and creating a healthy culture in physical fitness is a great asset to the nation.

HIGHLIGHT (what’s this?)
Blue Ridge VA
December 7th, 2010
10:20 am
We don’t put NIH researchers on the Wheaties box. We don’t devote a portion of every news program to advances in science or profiles of people working in math or science. Instead, we hold up the entertainers of sports, music, television and film to be admired and emulated. Our children are just following our example.
HIGHLIGHT (what’s this?)
December 7th, 2010
10:38 am
Education and Health are a nation’s investment not a nation’s handout.
HIGHLIGHT (what’s this?)
boston, ma
December 7th, 2010
11:09 am
” In Europe and the United States students are taught according to a model that has existed since The Enlightenment.”

This comment by Bob Fonow may be true in an idealized history of the West, but it certainly isn’t true in reality, and is especially untrue in the United States. As is obvious from contemporary American politics, Jeffersonian Enlightenment values play only a relatively minor role in American society. Rather than looking to Jefferson or Ben Franklin as embodying the spirit of American life, one should rather look at Elmer Gentry or other Southern ministers. The spirit of America is not to be found in Enlightenment, but rather in the irrational amoral nihilism of pseudo religion. When you’ve got countless millions of Americans regarding a Sarah Palin as an inspirational leader (I wouldn’t want to see her PISA score!), you know you’ve got problems instilling the values of critical judgment and scientific reasoning in American classrooms.

HIGHLIGHT (what’s this?)
Concerned Citizen
Anywheresville, USA
December 7th, 2010
2:56 pm
With over 400 letters, someone may have posted this already but I don’t have time to read all these letters! So bear with me.

Did these tests take into account that in the US system, we have free compulsory education that FORCES school districts to have to take EVERY child no matter what his disability (even severe learning disabilities) and take on the challenges of very poor children, kids from the worst inner city neighborhoods, violent kids, anti-social kids, kids raised by unwed mothers on welfare, kids who have been raised by 13 year old moms and fed soda pop and chips, kids who are hungry, kids who have not had the slightest stimulation when young or books in the home or the barest semblance of a role model?

Generally, in foreign schools that “beat us” there is either the Scandinavian model — all middle class or wealthy, all white, highly educated, high social service benefits — OR in countries like China not everyone gets to go to high school….they cherry pick the best students (from a HUGE population). It is not comparing apples to apples.

Take a SELECT group of American kids from upper-class wealthy white enclaves — Asian-American kids, Jewish-American kids, Russian-American kids — the best of OUR best against the best of THEIR best — and then run this again.

I’ll bet we come out on top, or very near the top.

I’d also like to results from the poorest kids in China — from the northern provinces, the kids who grew in remote villages, the kids who drop out of school at 14 to work in factories. Or the girls who are abandoned in orphanages. Mix those kids in with the “Shanghai elite” and then tell me what the results are!

HIGHLIGHT (what’s this?)
Mike Y.
Yonkers, NY
December 7th, 2010
2:56 pm
Responding to post #2. JesterJames

A job in government in China is highly desired. It confers status, respect, and stability, hence the more difficult test. Here in the U.S., the saying is “good enough for government work!”

HIGHLIGHT (what’s this?)
December 7th, 2010
3:10 pm
I wonder what happened to India.
HIGHLIGHT (what’s this?)
December 7th, 2010
3:16 pm
First thing I look at the results, I think its fishy. I think Shanghai would score high and could easily rank first or second, but I am very suspicious at the huge difference between Shanghai’s performance and other places. Shanghai just blows all the other East Asian cities / country out of the water. They outscore their nearest competitors on each test by 20-40 points whether its Finland, Korea and Singapore. For Math there is greater distance between Shanghai and second place Singapore, the Singapore and 11th place Macau. If that does raise concerns I don’t know what does.

PISA have been doing the test of years, and this is the first time there is such a great between the first and second place.

One thought on “In PISA Test, Top Scores From Shanghai Stun Experts

  1. junlia

    Well, I am from China and went through the Chinese educational system, and my husband went thru American educational system and my daughter is now going through American educational system. We have been in discussion about the differences of the two systems. Here I will share some of my insights:

    1. Chinese as a people has always valued academic achievements and intellectuals. Chinese history has proved that: for thousands of years, even the poorest kids, as long as they work hard to educate themselves, they and their families could gain great power, fame and wealth through nationwide tests. Intellectual achievements have been valued as the greatest achievements ever. Chinese families and educational system push their youngsters to achieve the highest level they are capable of.

    In contrast, intellectuals and academic achievements at secondary schools are regularly being looked down upon by the general student population and families. In America, kids are allowed to underachieve by the school as well as the society as a whole.

    Unless America as a society values academic achievements, many of our kids won’t reach their potential, and will be left in the dust in the global market place.

    2. Chinese educational system usually evaluates where to invest and identify the best bang for the buck. Chinese schools and families will put more effort to help the best and brightest, so that they can reach their potential to do great good for the human race and society. For example, when I was preparing the national high school students physics competition, the school dedicated the best physics teacher to mentor me.

    In contract, America’s best and brightest are being denied of the opportunities to blossom, let alone reaching their potential. The no child left behind act mandates schools to pour unlimited resources to help the children with lower intellectual abilities. However, the best and brightest kids are being neglected and allowed to underachieve because they can get A’s without putting in any efforts into the school work. Because of physical age limitations, they are starved intellectually. The needs for highly gifted is just as great as that of a highly disabled. However, the American society and educational system are ignoring our most precious human resources.

    My daughter before age of 10, got full score for ACT reading practice tests, above 30 for science reasoning, above 20 for English, is denied of taking courses at a local community college. (I did not let her take ACT math test because she has not been taught of high school math.) Her elementary school teacher is telling us there is nothing she could do to challenge her, as her hands are bound by the district curriculum… We are just worrying that the boredoms in school may lead to underachievement and bad study/working habits. We are even considering sending her to China to keep her intellectually challenged, if we just cannot find anything here to challenge her in the US.

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