A global education survey, the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), released on Tuesday, shows that Shanghai ranks number one, while the United States comes in 26th, out of 65 places worldwide in combined scores for math, science and reading.
China’s First International Standardized Test
What’s really astonishing is that with China’s debut in the international standardized testing, students in Shanghai have succeeded in outscoring their counterparts in dozens of other countries in all three tested areas.
U.S. Consistently Ranks Below Top-Scoring Countries
Sadly, the United States ranking is not that surprising. It’s true that U.S. scores from this test are higher than those from 2003 and 2006, but still far behind the highest scoring countries, including Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Finland and Canada.
The test was given to 15-year-old students by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a Paris-based group that includes the world’s major industrial powers. It is one of a handful of tests that compare educational levels across nations and is considered to be the most comprehensive. Around 470,000 students took the test in 2009 in 65 countries, ranging from poor, underdeveloped nations to the most wealthy.
A Wake-Up Call For America
What are the lessons here for the United States? Education Secretary Arne Duncan did not mince his words.
“This is an absolute wake-up call for America,” he said. “The results are extraordinarily challenging to us, and we have to deal with the brutal truth. We have to get much more serious about investing in education.”
Shanghai vs. United States?
It might be questioned how it’s possible to compare the city of Shanghai to the country of the United States. As Sam Dillon points out in The New York Times,
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.
Eight Out Of Top Ten In Asia-Pacific Region
And it is also true that eight out of the top ten performing countries are in the Asia-Pacific region. So what is their secret? For one, teachers are routinely recruited from among the top high-school graduates. Teaching is a highly regarded profession and the selection and training of teachers and principals is a priority.
Students also have longer school years and often longer school days, so that they have the equivalent of several more years of schooling by the time they graduate. What’s really interesting too is that Asian nations have built strong school systems by traveling the world to find effective practices and then weaving them together in ways that mesh with their own cultural values.
Standardized Tests Not The Only Measure
Standardized tests are only one measure of how well students are doing. We’ve all read of the brutal methods of some teachers in China and Japan, the insistent drilling of information, and the rise in the number of suicides as students feel scared and overwhelmed.
But while such practices are not a solution, the United States does need to start taking education seriously again, and making it a priority. As former Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong has said, “A nation’s wealth in the 21st century will depend on the capacity of its people to learn.”
Wake up, America!
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