Beyond the classroom, the obsession with test-taking leaves many Chinese graduates ill-prepared for the job market. A McKinsey study found that 44 percent of executives in Chinese companies reported that insufficient talent limited their global ambitions. Multinationals also find the labor pool lacking.
Meanwhile, Chinese colleges graduated nearly 6 million students in 2008.
After chasing test scores for their entire lives, graduates of China's education system face another grim reality: According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the average college graduate earns just 300 yuan -- roughly $45 -- more than average migrant worker.
As reported in the Beijing Times, the study found that monthly salaries for college graduates have been at a plateau of about 1,500 yuan since 2003. Meanwhile, wages for migrant workers rose from an average of 700 yuan to 1,200 yuan over roughly the same period.
Still, there are some experts who maintain that, while flawed, the Chinese education system has its strengths.
Shijing Xu, an education professor with the University of Windsor in Toronto studying the interaction between schools in China and Canada, said Chinese students get a better foundation in all subject areas at a young age.
Specialized subject teachers -- one for math, one for science, one for language, and so on -- are present from the very beginning in Chinese schools.
In the U.S., most public schools have one teacher that teaches all subjects until grades three or four. Xu, like all the experts ABC News spoke with, said that the advantage in U.S. is that they encourage and foster creativity and initiative.
"If we really can combine the two together, we really would provide a better education for children on both sides," said Xu.
Change in China, Xu added, will not come overnight. With a population of 1.3 billion, it is difficult to develop a fair system that is not centered on standardized tests.
Yasheng Huang of M.I.T. said news that China came out on top in PISA is a far cry from a "Sputnik" moment, as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called it.
Duncan's label made Huang think of another news maker out of China. When China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003, it prompted Jay Leno to joke that this would be big news ... if it was 1962. The same, said Huang, holds true for Chinese students outperforming international students on the standardized PISA test.
"Yes, this would be big news for China," Huang said, "if it were 1981."