Chinese Third Graders Fall Behind U.S. Students (The Onion)*


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.


*If you have reached the end of the piece and have not yet figured out that The Onion specializes in satire, parody, and comic humor, I want readers to know that this is a fictitious article poking fun at U.S. school reformers’ obsessive focus on international test score comparisons, the supposed high quality of Chinese education and perceived low academic quality of U.S. high schools.

Thanks to Joel Westheimer for sending this piece to me.



Filed under school reform policies

12 responses to “Chinese Third Graders Fall Behind U.S. Students (The Onion)*

  1. Ellis, Jason

    Larry: In a similar tragi-comic vein, I hope you will have something on the Bennett resignation. The email trail is just priceless, especially this gem from Bennett himself: “”They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work.” Sure is a hassle when accountability gets in the way of Accountability.

    Best wishes,

    Jason Ellis

    Jason Ellis PhD, B.Ed
    Assistant professor | Faculty of Education | Department of Educational Studies
    The University of British Columbia | Vancouver
    2125 Main Mall | Vancouver, BC Canada V6T 1Z1
    Phone 604 822 9190 | Fax 604 822 4244


    • larrycuban

      Thank you, Jason, for the comment. I am still reading about Florida Commissioner of Education Bennett remarks and whether or not he will resign over raising the lower to higher grade of the Indiana charter school. Lots of blog chatter on it. I need to find out more about the issue and what, if anything, it says about accountability. Thanks for pointing me to it.

  2. Jim

    The question of what the average IQ level of the Han is is one of the most fascinating topics about the current world. The IQ level of the Japanese and Korean population is about 107-108. Is the Han IQ level similar? The total population of Han is much larger than the Japanese and Korean populations combined.

    • larrycuban

      Don’t know the answer to your question, Jim. As a parody of the U.S. obsession with international comparison, IQ levels don’t seem to matter in the “Onion” piece.

  3. Gary Ravani

    What is perhaps more ironic, if not amusing, than the Onion piece is the fact that China really is attempting to revise their education system, that is to make their more like ours. Or, to be clear, like ours was up until the 1980s and A Nation At Risk put the country’s schools on its current debased “reform” track.

    • larrycuban

      Yep, you are right about the irony laid atop the Onion parody of U.S. obsessiveness with international comparisons. Thanks, Gary.

    • William Davis

      Having spent two years in China, I’m not sure I found any evidence that they want to turn their public education into the US system at any time. However, the Chinese recognize what their schooling is not: creative and engaging. Describing the US system in these terms may well be difficult, but compared to China’s 100% rote instruction and assessment scheme, the US system provides five star entertainment.

      Everything depends on testing in China–what junior high you go to, what high school you go to, what (Chinese) university you go to, and indirectly, what job you will eventually have should you stay in China.

      I’m not sure how the Chinese government can reconcile the current system of basically weeding students (described by a classmate of mine years ago as “Most children left behind”) with the kinds of reforms in creativity and pedagogy that have been discussed–and that doesn’t even address the international test scores and what might happen to them with such changes made.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for your comment, William, on the Chinese system of schooling as you experienced it.

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