“Top Test Scores from Shanghai Stun Educators” was the New York Times headline describing the December 7 release of international test data. For the first time, mainland China participated in the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA). Their 5,100 15-year-olds from Shanghai blew away the traditional frontrunners.
In science, China’s students scored 575, followed by Finland (554), Hong Kong (549) and Singapore (542). In reading, Chinese students led with 556, followed by Korea (539), Finland (536), Hong Kong (533) and Singapore (526). And in math, China left everyone in the dust with their score of 600, followed by Singapore (562), Hong Kong (555), and Korea (546).
Our selection of 5,100 American students scored in the middle of the pack, or lower: science (501), reading (500) and math (487). PISA scores center on 500, placing us about 23rd among competing countries.
Supporters of test-taking responded predictably. Chester E. Finn, Jr., a U.S. Department of Education official under President Reagan and rabid supporter of No Child Left Behind was “stunned.” Education Secretary Duncan declared the results “a wake-up call.”
However, misconceptions surround China’s performance. Educationists complained that China was selecting its elite against our average. Chester Finn predicted that “if they can do this in Shanghai in 2009, they can do it in ten cities in 2019 and in 50 cities by 2029.” Those arguments are wrong. China can replicate today’s results with students from many regions. And our highest ranking American students (from Massachusetts) could not match the Chinese scores.
I visit China each summer. From Kunming to Xi’an, from Chongqing to Wuhan, from Beijing to Nanjing, China can field student teams that will outscore the rest of the world. Twelve years ago in Xinxiang, at a high school across from Henan Normal University, I sat at the back of a class of honor students being drilled for the Biology Olympiad (an international competition China has dominated for decades). I watched students answer detailed rapid-fire questions on the biochemistry leading from DNA to protein production. It was memorization of detail well-beyond what I have ever seen in American high school biology classes.
Experts cry out for a revival of our U.S. Sputnik-era educational push. We boosted teachers’ content-training when we woke up to find the Soviet Union first into space. That reform was a content reform. Science teachers returned for academic year and summer institutes to substantially update their science knowledge. Emporia State University (Kansas State Teachers College) was a major hub for biology teacher re-training for teachers across the nation. Even Nobel-award winner George Beadle came to KSTC to help retrain biology teachers.
Today, any such “Sputnik-era reform” would be hijacked by the test makers, the online learning movement sponsored by the computer companies, the businessmen who want schoolwork to be pure job-training, and the educationists who believe you don’t have to know anything to teach.
The U.S. does need more and better science teachers to teach two to three times more science in K–12, a larger curriculum that would barely match that of other developed countries. We must abandon non-metric units if we are ever to produce students who can speak the language of engineering and physics. And we need to restore professional curricular decision-making to the science classroom teacher and stop all standardized external-to-class assessment.
In 2001, the Korean Ministry of Education staff looked at their first place in another international assessment (TIMSS) and concluded: big deal, we train our students to take tests but we don’t get Nobel Prizes. This observation has been taken to heart by China, Finland, and Singapore. They are struggling to return the decision on what to teach, how to teach, and when to teach to the teacher.
Yes, China blew the top off the international tests. But China has yet to win one science Nobel Prize for a Chinese scientist educated and researching in China. American has over 270 Nobel Prizes, with the American-born scientists educated by earlier teachers operating free from external tests and dictated curricula. While we are adopting a national teach-to-the test Common Core curriculum, other countries are retreating from a national curriculum and moving to teacher responsibility.
Perhaps we will succeed in standardizing a teach-to-the-test curriculum and reach the point where we can take first place in the international tests. But like South Korea: big deal; in training students to take tests, we lose the creativity to get Nobel Prizes.