Shanghai Students World Champs on Science, Math, Reading Test

A group of teenagers from Shanghai, China, have posted the top scores on the latest version of an international test of practical knowledge in reading, mathematics, and science. It's the first time that students from mainland China have participated in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which compares the performance of 15-year-olds from 60 nations and half a dozen so-called regional economies.

At the same time, the results show that the United States continues to trail much of the industrialized world and the rising economies in Asia. Its students, a representative sample of the entire country, did worst in mathematics: Their score of 487 puts them in a tie for 30th place, well below the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average of 496. In science, U.S. students tied for 23rd place, with a score of 502 that matches the OECD average of 501. Reading was their best subject, tying for 15th with a score of 500 that is statistically identical to the OECD average of 493.

One silver lining for the United States was a jump in its science scores, thanks to a better performance by its lowest-ranking students. Its math scores returned to 2003 levels after a dip in 2006. The 2009 reading scores for U.S. students were not significantly different from previous tests.

The scores from Shanghai, one of China's 22 provinces, far surpass those of students from the top nations on previous PISA assessments, administered every 3 years since 2000. Their tallies of 600 in mathematics, 575 in science, and 556 in reading gave them a 38-point margin over Singapore in math, a 21-point margin over Finland in science, and a 17-point margin over Korea in reading. Singapore, which also participated in PISA for the first time, ranked in the top five in all three subjects. The test is administered by OECD, which lists 500 as the average score for the 34 OECD-member countries. Twelve mainland Chinese provinces participated this year, but Shanghai's are the only results that have been released. Hong Kong and Macao, which participated previously, are also included in the 2009 results.

The Shanghai students not only outperformed the rest of the world but also had the largest percentage of test-takers performing at the highest level. In mathematics, for example, 27% of them reached Level 6, defined as capable of advanced mathematical thinking and reasoning, versus 3% of the students from OECD countries and 2% of U.S. students.

Stuart Kerachsky, head of the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics, calls Shanghai "an educational mecca" that is also much wealthier than the rest of the country. Andreas Schleicher, head of analysis for the OECD's education directorate, acknowledges that "Shanghai is not representative of China" but notes that the sample does include a large immigrant population.