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Report: Chinese Third-Graders Falling Behind U.S. High School Students in Math, Science

Experts say the average Chinese third-grader is now, alarmingly, barely able to compete with a U.S. high school senior.
Experts say the average Chinese third-grader is now, alarmingly, barely able to compete with a U.S. high school senior.

CHESTNUT HILL, MA—According to an alarming new report published Wednesday by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, third-graders in China are beginning to lag behind U.S. high school students in math and science.

The study, based on exam scores from thousands of students in 63 participating countries, confirmed that in mathematical and scientific literacy, American students from the ages of 14 to 18 have now actually pulled slightly ahead of their 8-year-old Chinese counterparts.

“This is certainly a wake-up call for China,” said Dr. Michael Fornasier, an IEA senior fellow and coauthor of the report. “The test results unfortunately indicate that education standards in China have slipped to the extent that pre-teens are struggling to rank among even the average American high school student.”

“Simply put, how can these third-graders be expected to eventually compete in the global marketplace if they’re only receiving the equivalent of a U.S. high school education?” Fornasier added.

Fornasier stressed that while the gap is not yet dramatically sizable, it has widened over the past two years after American high schoolers tested marginally higher in algebra, biology, and chemistry than, shockingly, most of China’s 8- and 9-year-olds.

“For decades, young children in China have scored at the expected level of their peers in American high schools, so this is a very worrying drop in performance,” said Fornasier, adding that the majority of Chinese third-graders are now a full year behind the average U.S. 12th-grader in their knowledge of calculus. “In the chemistry portion of the exam, for example, Chinese children proved to be slightly deficient compared to American teenagers in their understanding of the periodic table, molecular structure, and the essential principles of atomic theory.”

“And even when they did test at the same level in mathematics, it often took Chinese elementary school students 10 to 15 minutes longer to do simple things like factor a polynomial equation or compute the derivative of a continuous function,” Fornasier added. “That just isn’t normal.”

In addition to disappointing marks from grade school children in China, 10-year-olds in Germany, South Korea, Japan, Switzerland, and New Guinea also reportedly tested an average of three percentage points lower than U.S. high school seniors in physics, with education officials from each country expressing deep concerns about the increasingly mediocre quality of their primary schools.

In light of the alarming study, many in China have called for considerable reforms of the country’s education system, including implementing far stricter standards for teachers, investing in better learning materials, and increasing the length of school days.

“Our third grade classes clearly cannot afford to lag behind American high schools if they are to be successful in the future,” read an official statement from China’s Minister of Education, Yuan Guiren. “Frankly, the scores are unacceptable, and we have to turn this around immediately. If there’s an American 17-year-old who can do something academically that a Chinese 8-year-old can’t, that’s a very big problem.”

“At that rate, how do we expect our Chinese 13-year-olds to be ready for American colleges?” Yuan continued.

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