U.S. Teens Lag as China Soars on International Test

Fifteen-year-olds in the U.S. ranked 25th among peers from 34 countries on a math test and scored in the middle in science and reading, while China’s Shanghai topped the charts, raising concern that the U.S. isn’t prepared to succeed in the global economy.

The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development, which represents 34 countries, today released the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment. For the first time, the test broke out the performance of China’s Shanghai region, which topped every country in all academic categories. The U.S. government considers the test one of the most comprehensive measures of international achievement.

The results show that U.S. students must improve to compete in a global economy, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said yesterday in a telephone interview. 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.”

‘Key Schools’

China’s success in Shanghai results 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 the report.

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

Shanghai was the first city in China to achieve universal primary and junior-secondary education, and more than 80 percent of students of college age are admitted into higher-education institutions, compared with 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 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.

Beating the U.S.

In all, 470,000 students worldwide took the exam. The test also measured countries and regions outside the OECD, or a total of 65 countries and economies. Asian countries and regions, including South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong, all outpaced the U.S., as did Finland.

U.S. 15-year-olds had an average score of 487 in math on a 1,000-point scale. Shanghai students scored 600, Singapore, 562; South Korea, Hong Kong, 555; Finland, 541.

The U.S. is traditionally ranked against other OECD countries. On an absolute basis, students from 24 of 34 OECD countries had higher scores than U.S. students, and the Education Department said 17 were better on a statistically significant basis.

U.S. math scores rose from 474 in 2006, when they ranked 25th of 30 OECD countries.

The average U.S. reading score of 500 ranked 14th among OECD countries, which were led by South Korea, Finland and Canada. Only six had scores that were better statistically, the Education Department said. Shanghai students scored 556. Because of an error in printing test booklets, no U.S. reading results were reported in 2006.

Science Score

The average U.S. science score of 502 ranks 17th in the OECD nations, which were led by Finland, Japan and South Korea. Twelve scores were statistically better, the Education Department said. Shanghai students scored 575. The U.S., which scored 489 in 2006, ranked 21st among 30 OECD countries that year.

The U.S. faces educational challenges from its immigrant and heterogeneous population, an OECD report said. In contrast with the U.S., Finland benefited from relative homogeneity, according to the report.

While the U.S. is wealthier than most of its OECD peers and its parents are better educated, the country fails to put the most-talented teachers in the most-challenging classrooms, Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the test for OECD, said in a telephone interview.

Policy Lessons

The success of top-scoring education systems holds lessons for U.S. policy, according to the report. Successful countries provide comparable opportunities to all students regardless of wealth, offer autonomy to individual schools in terms of curriculum and prioritize teacher pay over smaller classes, according to the report.

Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates urged top 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. Duncan has also endorsed that approach.

“Great teachers and great principals elevate the entire profession,” Duncan said yesterday. “There are huge lessons we can learn from countries that are both doing better than we are and improving more rapidly.”

(Updates with OECD comment on China in fifth paragraph.)
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