According to the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), students in Shanghai are the best in the world at mathematics, reading and science. The standardized test is administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) every three years.
In all three subjects, Shanghai students had the knowledge of at least one extra year of schooling compared to their counterparts in countries such as the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom.
The city was followed by other East Asian economies such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Macau.
Shanghai’s outstanding performance defies preconceptions about China’s education system being based on rote learning, according to the OECD’s deputy director of education, Andreas Schleicher.
In Asia students spend long hours focused on schoolwork, and the education system puts emphasis on test-taking skills rather than critical thinking and real-world applications. Test results can determine one’s entrance into university and even one’s future career.
Before America bemoans its drop in the global education rankings, however, the results need to be given a second look. Some argue that the numbers for Shanghai are misleading and don’t represent the country as a whole.
“The Shanghai scores frankly to me are difficult to interpret. They are almost meaningless,” Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told the AP.
Most of the PISA results come from a sampling of scores from countries as a whole. China has a special arrangement with the OECD that allows the country to administer the test in select regions, but only allow the results from Shanghai, a financial hub which spends four times the national average on student funding, to be published. Most Chinese students live in rural areas and do not have the thousands of dollars that those in Shanghai have to pay for extra tutoring.
Tom Loveless pointed out in an article published by the Brookings Institution that if the exam was administered in rural areas, the scores would be closer to the OECD average rather than at the top. Even then, the results would only reflect those who are actually in school. In the poor, rural areas of China, high school attendance rates are as low as 40 percent and the middle school dropout rate is as high as 25 percent.
“The OECD should be far more transparent than it has been about the agreements it has with the Chinese government concerning who is tested and which scores are released,” Loveless wrote. “If China is treated differently than other PISA participants, the reasons for such special treatment need to be disclosed.”