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As a ninth-grader, Shanghai's Li Sixin spent more than three hours on homework a night and took tutorials in math, physics and chemistry on the weekends. When she was tapped to take an exam last year given to half a million students around the world, Li breezed through it.
''I felt the test was just easy,'' said Li, who was a student at Shanghai Wenlai Middle School at the time and now attends high school. ''The science part was harder... but I can handle that.''
Those long hours focused on schoolwork - and a heavy emphasis on test-taking skills - help explain why young students like Li in China's financial hub once again dominated an international test to 15-year-olds called the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, coordinated by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD.
Students from Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan - all from Asia - were right behind.
Students in the wealthy city of Shanghai, where affluent families can afford to pay for tutors, are not representative of China overall, although they are ranked as a group alongside national averages for countries such as the United States and Japan. Still, they are indicative of education trends in China and elsewhere in Asia - societies where test results determine entrance into prestigious universities and often one's eventual career path.
Shanghai scored an average of 613 on math, as compared with the nearest rival Singapore with 573, and the global average of 494. Hong Kong ranked third in math, scoring 561, while Japan was ranked seventh and scored 536. The test is given every three years.
The results have led to hand-wringing elsewhere, including in the United States, where students failed to rank in the top 20 in any category. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the results a ''picture of educational stagnation.''
In China, educators say hard work is a key to their student's impressive showing.
''They listen carefully in the class and do the homework,'' said Bai Bing, the headmaster of Li's school, where about 40 students were chosen to