Comparisons in the Global Classroom

Dec 30, 2010

Americans performed abysmally in reading and math on the latest PISA, a standardized test administered to young students around the globe. By contrast, students from Shanghai outscored every other country even though this is their first time participating in the test. Speaking to The New York Times, Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the results 'a challenge to get better.'

international students

An Emerging Economic Power

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) has been administered every three years since 2000 to 15-year-old students around the globe. The test is overseen by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a group of the world's largest economic and industrial powers.

PISA measures literacy in math, reading and science, as well as problem-solving ability. The goal is to assess the core knowledge and skills that students have acquired by the time they're nearing the end of their compulsory education (in the U.S., that would be graduation from high school). The OECD contends that these skills are essential for 'full participation in society,' and that measuring them helps countries assess their development relative to other nations.

Shanghai, China


The results from the 2009 test were released earlier this month, and the top scorer took everyone by surprise. Although this was the first time they had participated, students from Shanghai outperformed everyone with a mean score of 556 in reading, 575 in science and 600 in math.

The tests are scored on a scale of 400-600, and second place countries in each category were still well behind the students from Shanghai: Korea scored 539 in reading, Finland scored 554 in science and Singapore scored 562 in math.

The scores from Shanghai are not seen as representative of all of China. The city is a major migration hub with a high proportion of universities that attract some of the top students in the country. But they do appear to reflect the importance of education in both Shanghai and the rest of the country. More emphasis is placed on teacher training and students generally spend a greater portion of their time on studying, as opposed to extracurricular activities.

And some experts think that this is a part of China's 'rapid modernization' that will quickly spread to the rest of the country's urban centers. In an interview with The New York Times, Chester E. Finn Jr., who served in the Department of Education under Ronald Reagan and has spent time in schools across China, commented, '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.'

american students

America 'Falls Behind'

American students, on the other hand, performed around or below the median score on all measures: 500 in reading, 487 in math and 502 in science. On a relative scale, that places U.S. students at about 15th in reading, 29th in math and 23rd in science.

Although there are obvious difficulties in using a standardized test to compare education outcomes in countries and cities of very different sizes, America's relatively poor performance on all three measures is a reminder that we are no longer the world's leader in education.

Speaking to The New York Times, Education Secretary Arne Duncan argued that, rather than debating the validity of the test, America's educators need to see the results as 'a wake-up call' and 'a challenge to get better.'

In a press conference, President Obama added that America is facing stiff economic competition from rising powers like India and China. In today's knowledge economy, it will be the countries with the most educated workforce that pull ahead. And right now, the president pointed out, 'America is falling behind.'

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