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John Metzler Archive
Monday, December 13, 2010

China surges in global student test scores, a ‘Sputnik moment for U.S. education’

UNITED NATIONS — American high school students lag behind their Asian and European counterparts, according to a recently released survey testing math, reading and science knowledge. Administered in sixty countries worldwide, the Program for International Student Assessment, tests the knowledge of fifteen year old students. U.S. students placed about midway globally and far behind Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan.


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Students attend a job fair at a university in Shanghai Dec. 10.  Reuters/Carlos Barria

Let’s look at the results. First the good grades. In reading, American students achieved a score of 500; higher than the average of 493. Yet, South Korea, Finland, Canada, New Zealand and Japan scored higher. In science there was marked improvement too, with the score of 502; a nice improvement over the 2006 score of 489. Still a dozen industrialized countries counties earned higher grades including Shanghai/China, Finland, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea, Canada, Germany and Taiwan. In science, the USA scores just behind Hungary and ahead of the Czech Republic.

Yet, it’s Math, wouldn’t you know, which poses the real hurdle for American teenagers. The U.S. average score was 487 while most industrial countries averaged 496. The USA slipped down the list with seventeen industrial countries performing better. Among them Shanghai/China, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, Finland, Switzerland, Japan and Canada. The USA lagged just behind Luxembourg and ahead of Ireland.

Powerful teachers unions will argue for more school funding and blame budget cuts. Yet the reality remains that the USA probably has among the best funded school systems in the world, with very few exceptions.

Interestingly, this is the first year China participated in the assessment. But not so coincidentally, Shanghai/ China came in first in the Science and Math scores. So in other words the vastness of Mainland China and its 1.2 billion people are represented by the twenty million people of metropolitan Shanghai/China. Traditionally Shanghai, once the “Paris of the Far East,” was a cosmopolitan and bustling commercial center before 1949 when the Chinese communists singled it out for political reeducation, which enforced dreariness and retribution. Happily in recent years, Shanghai has proudly reemerged as a thriving and prosperous city.

Poetic justice in the People’s Republic, if you will.

But while saying Shanghai stands as number one globally in education, what about measuring the educational prowess of the other 1.2 billion people elsewhere in the vastness of China?

Shanghai’s, or really China’s, surge alarms many.

Calling the results “A Sputnik Moment for U.S. Education,” Chester Finn, writing in the Wall Street Journal asserts that China offers “a wake-up call to those who think American schools are globally competitive.” The allusion to Sputnik recalls how in the wake of the scientific shock of the Soviet satellite launch in the 1950’s, the USA was shaken out of its educational complacency. This is correct, to a point but may miss the wider mark. While there are subjective elements of truth here, what was the status of overall Soviet society in 1957 or 1987 for that matter?

Shanghai/China glistens without question, but is hardly representative of a country which still faces a dangerous undertow of poverty and socio/political underdevelopment. Here’s another key point. All of the global leaders Singapore, Hong Kong, Finland and Switzerland are small and successful societies with relatively tiny populations. Nonetheless the USA equally trails behind such larger population countries such as Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, and even Australia.

American schools have long been globally challenged on the secondary level. Sadly many have to focus on school security and student protection, at the expense of teaching resources, Still the United States stands near alone and above most when it comes to higher education, especially in math and science. American Universities remain near- unrivaled globally and let’s face it, are a genuine educational magnet for students, especially from East Asia and Western Europe.

And let’s be frank. Many American students do not come from the cohesive family structures as do their East Asian counterparts; family remains a key societal foundation and building block for learning. Moreover Asian schools, while accused of encouraging rote learning and memorization, equally do not face the discipline problems which plague many American high schools.

These class rankings measured globally, show there’s serious room for improvement in America’s oft- underperforming public school systems. America had better resolve this educational challenge or slowly slip in our global standings, competitiveness, and national security.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for


Someone please check the validity of all these international tests and the comparison with the U.S. In the U.S. NCLB says we test EVERYONE even students previously designated "special education". In many counties their is a tiered system starting at age 12. I am suspect that not EVERY child is tested in all these other countries.

Mark G in California      11:10 a.m. / Sunday, December 19, 2010

You also have to assess how the survey was done. Most of these countries only test the top 20 percentile of their students. Whereas the United States tests almost all high school students. The results of this survey are skewed by the way the analysis was done.

Michael Walsh      12:23 a.m. / Wednesday, December 15, 2010

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