Asian Teens Ace Global Achievement Test Besting U.S. as Shanghai Excels

Fifteen-year-olds in Asia topped the charts on an international test, raising concern in the U.S. that the nation’s students lag in economic competitiveness.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development, which represents 34 countries, released yesterday the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment. For the first time, the triennial test broke out China’s Shanghai region -- which topped every country, in all academic categories. South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan all outpaced the U.S.

Asian countries and regions benefit from a cultural emphasis on education, investments in teacher quality and equitable funding of schools regardless of family income, Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the test for the Paris-based OECD, said in a telephone interview.

“It is striking,” Schleicher said. “These countries are improving very rapidly.”

China’s success in Shanghai stemmed from the government’s abandonment of a system of “key schools” for elites, and the institution of “a more inclusive system in which all students are expected to perform at high levels,” the OECD said in yesterday’s report.

China also raised teacher pay and standards and reduced rote learning, while giving students and local authorities more choice in curriculum.

Universal Education

Shanghai was the first city in China to achieve universal primary and junior-secondary education. More than 80 percent of Shanghai students of college age are admitted into higher- education institutions, beating the national figure of 24 percent, according to the report. China’s Hong Kong is also a top performer.

The OECD test, first administered in 2000 and given every three years, aims to measure skills achieved near the end of compulsory schooling.

In all, 470,000 students worldwide took the exam. The test measured countries and regions both inside and outside the OECD, or a total of 65 countries and economies. In the U.S., 165 public and private schools and 5,233 students participated in the two-hour paper-and-pencil assessment, given in September and November 2009. It consisted of multiple-choice and open-response questions.

In math, Shanghai 15-year-old students scored 600 on average on a 1,000-point scale; Singapore, 562; Hong Kong, 555; and South Korea, 546. U.S. students scored 487. Those Asian countries also surpassed U.S. averages in reading and science.

Lessons for U.S.

The success of education systems in Asia and elsewhere holds lessons for U.S. policy, according to the report. Successful countries offer autonomy to individual schools in terms of curriculum and prioritize teacher pay over smaller classes, the authors wrote.

Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates urged U.S. public- school officials to overhaul teacher pay, saying on Nov. 19 that instructors should be rewarded for results rather than seniority or advanced degrees. Gates, whose Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funds education programs, said the U.S. may also find money for merit pay by increasing class size. Asian countries will often have as many as 40 or 50 students in a classroom, Schleicher said.

The results show that U.S. students must improve to compete in a global economy, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a telephone interview on Dec. 6. President Barack Obama’s administration is promoting national curriculum standards and a revamping of teacher pay that stresses performance rather than credentials and seniority.

“The brutal fact here is there are many countries that are far ahead of us and improving more rapidly than we are,” Duncan said. “This should be a massive wake-up call to the entire country.”

To contact the reporter on this story: John Hechinger in Boston at;

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jonathan Kaufman at

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