The Shanghai math (+1 SD) and science (+.75 SD) scores are almost a full SD above the OECD average of 500 (SD = 100). The top 10 percent of Shanghai math students are all above the 99th percentile for the US. See earlier post for links to Rindermann's work relating school achievement tests like TIMSS and PISA to national IQ estimates, and see here for earlier SD estimates using 2006 PISA data. (Finland has an anomalously low SD in the earlier data. A quick look at the 2009 data shows the following math SDs: Finland 82, USA 91, Korea 89, Japan 94, Germany 98, Shanghai 103, Singapore 104.)
Although Shanghai and Beijing are the richest cities in China, incomes are still quite low compared to the US. Average income in Shanghai is about $10k USD per annum, even PPP adjusted this is about $20k. People live very modestly by the standards of developed countries.
As noted in the comments, there are other places in China that score *higher* than Shanghai on college entrance exams or in math and science competitions. So while Shanghai is probably above the average in China, it isn't as exceptional as is perhaps implied in the Times article.
Taiwan has been moving to an American-style, less test-centric, educational system in the last decade. Educators and government officials (according to local media reports in the last 12 hours) are very concerned about the "low scores" achieved in the most recent PISA :-)
To see how individual states or ethnicities in the US score on PISA, see here and here.
NYTimes: ... PISA scores are on a scale, with 500 as the average. Two-thirds of students in participating countries score between 400 and 600. On the math test last year, students in Shanghai scored 600, in Singapore 562, in Germany 513, and in the United States 487.
In reading, Shanghai students scored 556, ahead of second-place Korea with 539. The United States scored 500 and came in 17th, putting it on par with students in the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and several other countries.
In science, Shanghai students scored 575. In second place was Finland, where the average score was 554. The United States scored 502 — in 23rd place — with a performance indistinguishable from Poland, Ireland, Norway, France and several other countries.
The testing in Shanghai was carried out by an international contractor, working with Chinese authorities, and overseen by the Australian Council for Educational Research, a nonprofit testing group, said Andreas Schleicher, who directs the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s international educational testing program.
Mark Schneider, a commissioner of the Department of Education’s research arm in the George W. Bush administration, who returned from an educational research visit to China on Friday, said he had been skeptical about some PISA results in the past. But Mr. Schneider said he considered the accuracy of these results to be unassailable.
“The technical side of this was well regulated, the sampling was O.K., and there was no evidence of cheating,” he said.
Mr. Schneider, however, noted some factors that may have influenced the outcome.
For one thing, Shanghai is a huge migration hub within China. Students are supposed to return to their home provinces to attend high school, but the Shanghai authorities could increase scores by allowing stellar students to stay in the city, he said. And Shanghai students apparently were told the test was important for China’s image and thus were more motivated to do well, he said.
“Can you imagine the reaction if we told the students of Chicago that the PISA was an important international test and that America’s reputation depended on them performing well?” Mr. Schneider said. “That said, China is taking education very seriously. The work ethic is amazingly strong.”
... Ever since his organization received the Shanghai test scores last year, Mr. Schleicher said, international testing experts have investigated them to vouchsafe for their accuracy, expecting that they would produce astonishment in many Western countries.
“This is the first time that we have internationally comparable data on learning outcomes in China,” Mr. Schleicher said. “While that’s important, for me the real significance of these results is that they refute the commonly held hypothesis that China just produces rote learning.”
“Large fractions of these students demonstrate their ability to extrapolate from what they know and apply their knowledge very creatively in novel situations,” he said.