Dec. 9, 2010— -- Chinese students made international headlines this week when Shanghai high school kids outscored their counterparts on PISA, an international standardized test. China came out on top and the U.S. was buried somewhere in the middle -- but it was no surprise to education experts or even to people familiar with China's progress as a global presence.
"The entire system is geared toward that one goal -- taking [a] test," said Yasheng Huang, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
It would be the equivalent of American students spending four or five years preparing for the GRE or SAT, he said. So when it comes to exams, Chinese students are stellar performers. But when it comes to other barometers of success, they fall short.
"In terms of imaginative talking, coming up with good ideas, taking risks, those are actually very weak," said Huang.
Such weaknesses are closely linked to an education system that effectively shortchanges Chinese students.
"When you spend all your time as a student at school going after high scores, you lose opportunity to develop anything else," said Yong Zhao, an education professor at Michigan State University.
Zhao said the Chinese system spends too much time focused on instruction, and not enough on education. Instruction, he explained, is imparting knowledge. Education is something entirely different.
"It's a long-term process of developing human beings, and well-rounded human beings who are curious, passionate and creative," said Zhao.
China's Standardized High School Test is 'Miserable'
From a very young age, China breeds a test-oriented educational environment.
In junior high, they write the zhongkao -- "middle test" -- to get placed in a good high school.
In high school, the stakes are higher with the gaokao -- "high test."
The final prize is entrance to a coveted college, which could lead to a leg up in the competitive job market, which could lead to a well-paid job, which in turn could lead to a happy and prosperous life. Failure or low scores on the test send many students back to high school for one more year of gaokao preparation.
The two- to three-day exam is nothing short of an obsession for parents. And it's nothing short of miserable for students.
"I scare my children," Zhao said. "I tell them if they don't take the trash out I'll send them to China to take the gaokao."
Jokes aside, many Chinese parents are sending their children in the opposite direction. The Institute of International Education found that the number of Chinese students coming to the U.S for undergraduate studies increased by more than 50 percent last year.
Peggy Blumenthal, executive vice president of the Institute of International Education, believes the possibility for a better educational experience lures such students away from China's education system.
"If you are spending all your time drilling what the answers are for your test, does that prepare you for the kind of innovative self-reliant, challenge-the-status-quo kind of thinking that is rewarded at the college level ... in the United States?" asked Blumenthal.
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.
China Scoring High on Tests Was Big News 20 Years Ago
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."