Alexander F. Yuan, Associated Press
BEIJING — As a ninth-grader, Shanghai's Li Sixin spent more than three hours on homework a night and took tutorials in math, physics and chemistry on the weekends. When she was tapped to take an exam last year given to half a million students around the world, Li breezed through it.
"I felt the test was just easy," said Li, who was a student at Shanghai Wenlai Middle School at the time and now attends high school. "The science part was harder... but I can handle that."
Those long hours focused on schoolwork — and a heavy emphasis on test-taking skills — help explain why young students like Li in China's financial hub once again dominated an international test to 15-year-olds called the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, coordinated by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD.
Students from Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan — all from Asia — were right behind.
Students in the wealthy city of Shanghai, where affluent families can afford to pay for tutors, are not representative of China overall, although they are ranked as a group alongside national averages for countries such as the United States and Japan. Still, they are indicative of education trends in China and elsewhere in Asia — societies where test results determine entrance into prestigious universities and often one's eventual career path.
Shanghai scored an average of 613 on math, as compared with the nearest rival Singapore with 573, and the global average of 494. Hong Kong ranked third in math, scoring 561, while Japan was ranked seventh and scored 536. The test is given every three years.
The results have led to hand-wringing elsewhere, including in the United States, where students failed to rank in the top 20 in any category. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the results a "picture of educational stagnation."
In China, educators say hard work is a key to their students' impressive showing.
"They listen carefully in the class and do the homework," said Bai Bing, the headmaster of Li's school, where about 40 students were chosen to take the global test. "They respect the teachers, and do exactly the assignments that teachers ask them to do."
"And it is a tradition that the Asians pay more attention to mathematics," Bai said.
In Hong Kong, 16-year-old Rosita Or said extra tutorials can extend her school days to 8 p.m. — but she does credit them with improving her math grades in school.
"Everyone is taking them — my friends, other students are taking the tutorial class. If I do not take this tutorial class, I feel like I have missed something," Or said.
Still, Chinese educational experts are taking a more somber view in the face of the stellar achievements by their students, saying the results are at most partial and covering up shortcomings in creating well-rounded, critical thinking individuals.
"This should not be considered a pride for us, because overall it still measures one's test-taking ability. You can have the best answer for a theoretical model, but can you build a factory on a test paper?" asked Xiong Binqi, a Shanghai-based scholar on education.
"The biggest criticism is that China's education has sacrificed everything else for test scores, such as life skills, character building, mental health, and physical health," Xiong said.
Even the party-run People's Daily noted the burden on Shanghai students. "While many countries have been urged to increase more study time and more homework for their students, Shanghai clearly needs some alleviation," the editorial reads.
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