(CNN) -- When it comes to mathematics, reading and science, young people in
Shanghai are the best in the world, according to a global education survey
In all three subjects, Shanghai students demonstrated knowledge and skills
equivalent to at least one additional year of schooling than their peers in
countries like the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom.
The findings are part of the 2012 Program for International Student
Assessment (or PISA) -- a leading survey of education systems conducted
every three years by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation
and Development (OECD), a grouping of the world's richest economies.
More than half a million students, aged 15 and 16, sat a two-hour exam last
year as part of the study. The pupils came from 65 countries representing 80
% of the global economy.
The resultsThe results
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East Asian economies performed best overall, claiming seven of the top ten
places across all three subjects.
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In math, Shanghai had the highest score with 613 points -- the equivalent of
nearly three years of schooling above the average for the 34 OECD member
countries of 494, and six years above Peru which ranked last with a score of
368. The city also came top in 2009 rankings.
Singapore came second in mathematics with a score of 573, followed by Hong
Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, and Macau.
But the math performance of most countries has not improved since the PISA
tests were launched more than a decade ago. Around 60% of the 64 countries
who participated in previous studies performed at the same level or worse in
2012, and nearly a third of all students scored in the lowest band for the
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The United States ranked 36th, performing below the OECD average in
mathematics with 481 points, and a score indistinguishable from the average
for reading and science.
The United Kingdom did slightly better, ranking 26th, equaling the average
score for OECD countries in math and reading. The UK performed above average
in science with a score of 514.
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Part of the reason pupils do so well in Shanghai, according to the OECD's
deputy director of education, Andreas Schleicher, is that they have the
drive and confidence to fulfill their potential.
"In China and Shanghai, you have nine out of ten students telling you, 'It
depends on me. If I invest the effort, my teachers are going to help me to
be successful'," Schleicher told CNN's On China program, which will air
later this month.
Similarly, in Japan -- which ranked 7th overall -- more than 80% of students
disagreed or strongly disagreed that they put off difficult problems, and
68% disagreed or strongly disagreed that they give up easily when confronted
with a problem.
"Practice and hard work go a long way towards developing each student's
potential, but students can only achieve at the highest levels when they
believe that they are in control of their success and that they are capable
of achieving at high levels," the PISA report said.
PISA tests student near the end of their compulsory education in areas that
are "essential for full participation in modern society," as well as their
ability to apply what they have learned in new situations.
"This approach reflects the fact that modern economies reward individuals
not for what they know, but for what they can do with what they know," the
In reading, East Asian economies also topped the league table. Shanghai
ranked first, with a score of 570 -- the equivalent of one and a half years
more schooling than the OECD average. Hong Kong ranked second, followed by
Singapore, Japan and South Korea. Half the countries that took part in
previous assessments saw an improvement in reading comprehension since 2003.
Shanghai also topped the list in science, with a score of 580 compared to
the average of 501 -- the equivalent of nearly two more years of schooling.
In fifth place, Finland was the top performing country outside Asia, behind
Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan.
Data on other Chinese provinces and cities is not yet published by PISA
because not enough regions take part in the tests to be considered
representative, a spokesman said. However, China as a whole is expected to
be included in the 2015 assessment.
Shanghai has been at the forefront of education reforms in the country in
Shanghai's outstanding performance defies preconceptions about China's
education system being based on rote learning, according to Schleicher.
"The biggest surprise from Shanghai ... was not that students did well on
reproducing subject matter content but that they were very, very good in
those higher order skills (that reflect) what you can do with what you know,
" he said.
Around one in four Shanghai students performed in the top two reading bands
compared to the average with just under one in ten.
Jiang Xueqin, deputy principal at the Tsinghua University High School in
Beijing, told CNN that Shanghai's education system invests in teaching staff
by offering training and high salaries.
"The teachers are very well-paid, very professional," Jiang said. "The
Shanghai government will spend a lot of resources in making sure that each
teacher is well trained, has opportunities to go abroad, (and) has
opportunities to learn from the best teachers."
Other countries whose performance improved in PISA this year, such as Brazil
, Colombia and Poland, have implemented policies to raise the quality of
teaching staff by increasing requirements for education licenses, providing
incentives for high-achieving students to enter the profession and ongoing
on-the-job training, according to the report.
Jiang also told CNN that Shanghai's success is a product of a culture that
prioritizes academic achievements over other pursuits.
"A lot of it is that the students are engaged in learning. The parents, the
students, the community are engaged in making sure their child succeeds," he