Some people were "stunned" this week when the results of the latest OECD-administered exam comparing the performances of students across countries showed Shanghai's students to be the smartest in the world. This isn't something I would normally cover in this blog, but I would like to offer a slightly different perspective on these exam results.
First, I was not at all stunned that the Chinese came out on top. This is a country that teaches math as if their children's lives depend upon it. As I've stated before on this blog "the average Chinese middle schooler can plot the trajectory of a non-guided missile." The only Americans who can do that are the handful who, for reasons that their friends can hardly fathom, opt to take a physics elective in 12th grade.
Fortunately, a few people did rush to put these results in perspective. Some Chinese experts acknowledged that, while their children are indeed pretty good at math and at taking exams, where they fall far short of their American counterparts is in creativity. (See articles here in ChinaDaily, and an editorial in WSJ by the Deputy Principal of Beijing University High School.) And James Fallows, in the Atlantic, quotes an educator who questions the representative nature of the exam given.
While I saw a lot of chatter about this news item on twitter this week, and read a few blog posts, I have yet to see anyone bring up the thought that originally came to my mind when these results were released. (Perhaps I missed it since I've been doing a lot more writing than reading recently.)
The point I would like to add is that I think various groups of students taking this exam most certainly had different levels of motivation.
Do any Americans remember the PSAT that we had to take in our 10th or 11th grade years? I would be surprised if many did. Does anyone remember the SAT or the ACT? Whether you got into college or not, you almost certainly do.
The only difference between these two exams was that one (the SAT or ACT) mattered, but the PSAT did not. I remember thinking about the PSAT: this has absolutely no bearing on my future, so I'm not going to sweat it. I may have even started to make patterns on the answer sheet as I colored in the dots.
My guess is that the American students who took this OECD exam approached it in pretty much the same way. Unless they could see how it would benefit them personally, they had no stake in the outcome.
As for the Chinese students who took the OECD exam, I have no way to prove this, but I am fairly certain that it was presented to them as something they must do for the honor of the Motherland.
This kind of pressure, combined with the fact that the Chinese system is already geared toward producing outstanding performance on standardized tests, was far more likely ensure a higher proportion of the students were motivated to perform well -- that, and the fact that the average Chinese student can do circles around the average American student in math.