This is an excellent and balanced article that explains why Asian nations swept the top places on PISA and at what cost to the students.
In the U.S., we have long had a belief in a “well-rounded” education, and many teachers believe they educate “the whole child,” thus putting concerns about social, emotional, and physical development in context with academic learning. Historically, there have been heated battles between those who want more or less emphasis on academics.
But in the test-centric Asian nations, academics come first, and some education officials in these nations are concerned about the lack of other dimensions of youth development.
“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.”
But listen to the educators, who worry about what is sacrificed to get high test scores:
“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 Bingqi, 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.
“Japan’s education minister, Hakubun Shimomura, pointed to the test results as evidence of success in reforms aimed at reducing class sizes — despite continued criticism of the pressure-filled university entrance examination system. Many Japanese students also attend cram schools to get an extra edge.
“Asian countries do better than European and American schools because we are ‘examination hell’ countries,” said Koji Kato, a professor emeritus of education at Tokyo’s Sophia University. “There is more pressure to teach to the test. In my experience in working with teachers the situation is becoming worse and worse.”