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Asian Nations Score Top Grades Worldwide

FILE - Students study in the evening ahead of the annual national college entrance examination, or "gaokao," at a high school in Handan, Hebei province, China, May 23, 2018.

Students in China, Singapore, Macao, Estonia, Japan, Finland, Korea, Canada and Hong Kong are among those who eclipse U.S. students in reading, math and science, according to an international study of education worldwide.

In a snapshot of the abilities of 15-year-old students in the subjects of reading, math and science, pupils in four provinces in China — Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang — outperformed their peers in mathematics and science “by a wide margin,” according to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Students in the four provinces also topped reading scores, with only those in Singapore coming close.

Asian nations took the top seven slots in math. Following the combined four provinces in China were Singapore, Macao, Hong Kong, Taipei, Japan and Korea. Estonia, the Netherlands and Poland rounded out the top 10. The U.S. ranked 37th, behind such countries as Canada, Sweden, the U.K., Germany, France, Australia, Russia, Italy and Hungary.

In science, the four provinces again excelled, followed by Singapore, Macao, Estonia, Japan, Finland, Korea, Canada, Hong Kong and Taipei to round out the top 10. The U.S. ranked 18th.

“What makes their achievement even more remarkable is that the level of income of these four Chinese regions is well below the average” of Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations, the report stated, meaning they were not among the wealthiest.

FILE - A high school student is cheered before taking the annual college entrance examinations, in front of an exam hall in Seoul, South Korea, Nov. 14, 2019.
FILE - A high school student is cheered before taking the annual college entrance examinations, in front of an exam hall in Seoul, South Korea, Nov. 14, 2019.

‘Socio-economically advantaged students’

OECD is a 36-member economic organization that works “to shape policies that foster prosperity, equality, opportunity and well-being for all,” and is headquartered in Paris. Most of the members are developed nations in Europe and North America, and include Australia, Chile, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, New Zealand and Turkey.

The report noted that “socio-economically advantaged students,” or those from wealthy countries, generally perform better than disadvantaged students. The 10% most wealthy students outperformed the 10% most disadvantaged students in reading by 141 score points, the report said.

However, in 2018, more than 10 million students in 79 high- and middle-income OECD countries, according to PISA statistics, were unable to complete even the most basic reading tasks.

The report also found that while spending increased by 15 percent in OECD countries in the past decade, “there has also been no real overall improvement in the learning outcomes of [their] students.”

The highest-scoring students in four Chinese provinces of Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang — or about 180 million students — were also among the 10 percent most disadvantaged students. These students showed “better reading skills than those of the average student in OECD countries,” the report found.

Some countries, such as Albania, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico and Uruguay, increased enrollment rates in secondary education while maintaining or improving reading, mathematics and science performance, the report said, adding, “This shows that the quality of education does not have to be sacrificed when increasing access to schooling.”

PISA said Turkey, while not showing a huge change in student performance between 2003-2018, touted the country’s ability to double the number of 15-year-olds in school during that period, increasing rolls from 36% to 73%.

The PISA report confirmed a “positive relationship between investment in education and average performance,” but found a threshold of $50,000 in cumulative expenditure per student from age 6 to 15.

“After that threshold, there is almost no relationship between the amount invested in education and student performance,” the report said.

It pointed to the $65,000 per year similarly spent by Estonia and neighboring Latvia in primary and lower secondary education: Estonia scores more than 40 points above Latvia in reading. Likewise, Australia, the U.K. and U.S. spend more than $107,000 on average per student per year, but score “no better than” or below Canada, Ireland and New Zealand, which spend between 10% and 30% less.

Quality vs. quantity

Quality of learning proves better than quantity, the report stated.

“In Finland, the country where students spend the least (amount of) time learning, student performance is comparatively high, whereas in the United Arab Emirates, the country with the longest study hours, learning outcomes are comparatively poor,” the report found.

It also noted the importance of “academic resilience” of immigrant students. More than 30 percent of immigrant students in Brunei Darussalam, Jordan, Panama, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates scored in the top quarter of reading performance, it stated.

“These successes do not come about by chance. … Support from parents, a positive school climate and having a growth mindset” were contributing factors, it said.

Wealth, too, no longer guarantees successful scores and students.

“The world is no longer divided between rich and well-educated nations, and poor and badly educated ones,” the report found. “When comparing countries that score similarly in PISA, their income levels vary widely. History shows that countries with the determination to build a first-class education system can achieve this even in adverse economic circumstances, and their schools today will be their economy and society tomorrow.”

The PISA report issued a warning for the rapid expansion of digital information and students’ ability to discern between fact and fiction.

With fewer than 5% of students in the PISA study having access to the internet at home, the report found that “fewer than 1 in 10 students in OECD countries (were) able to distinguish between fact and opinion.”

“When reading online blogs, forums or news sites, readers must constantly assess the quality and reliability of the information, based on implicit or explicit cues related to the content, format or source of the text,” the report found. “Education has won the race with technology throughout history, but there is no guarantee that it will do so in the future.”