The Hidden Cost of East Asian Test Results

East Asian countries dominate the education arms race. Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, China and Taiwan regularly get the highest scores on international tests such as the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Other countries, including Australia, seek to emulate their test results.

However, a key factor behind the success of these countries is the cultural emphasis on studying at the expense of other activities outside school. This brings costs in terms of student well-being and health which are frequently ignored.

Last week, the OECD published the findings of its first student well-being study involving 540,000 15-year-olds across 72 countries as part of PISA 2015. It shows that while East Asian countries are at the top of the league table of test scores they are at the bottom in student well-being.

Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macao and four mainland Chinese cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Guangdong) participating in PISA have the lowest levels of life satisfaction among students out of 50 countries participating in the survey, apart from Turkey. The average index of life satisfaction in these countries/cities was much lower than the average for the OECD. Australia did not participate in the survey.

East Asian countries also have among the highest percentage of students not satisfied with life. Some 22% of Korean students were not satisfied, 16% of students in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the four mainland Chinese cities were not satisfied and 15% in Macao were not satisfied. The only other countries with higher or similar rates are Turkey with 29%, Tunisia 19%, United Kingdom 16%, Greece, Italy and the United Arab Emirates with 15%.

In contrast, only 4% of students in Netherlands and 7% of students in Finland, France and Switzerland are not satisfied with life. The average for the OECD is 12%.

Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macao have the lowest percentage of students who are very satisfied with life in the world [Chart 3]. Less than 20% of students in South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao reported being very satisfied with life, while only 24% of Japanese students are satisfied. Hong Kong has the lowest of all countries with only 14% being satisfied. In addition, only 27% of students in the four mainland Chinese cities were satisfied – the 9th lowest of the 50 countries.

In contrast, about 40% or more of students in 20 other countries are very satisfied with life. The average for the OECD is 34%.

The OECD data also show that students in several East Asian countries spend a large fraction of their waking hours in school lessons and studying outside of school. For example, 41% of students in the four mainland Chinese cities spend at least 60 hours a week at school and doing homework, extra lessons or private study outside school. In Singapore, 25% spend at least 60 hours a week studying while in Korea it is 23% and 18% in Hong Kong. While high percentages of students in many other countries also spend such long hours in study, the average across OECD countries is only 13%. In Australia, only 9% of students spend at least 60 hours a week studying and it is only 4% in Finland and Germany.

The OECD report raised concerns that the long hours of study by students mean less time on leisure time out of school and can come at the expense of quality of life.

It has become conventional wisdom that the highest-achieving education systems build their success on making students work around the clock. Educators and parents are increasingly concerned about the culture of overwork in education, where high achievement equals hours of homework, catch-up classes, after-school lessons, long school terms and frequent testing. Adolescents, just like adults, need time every day to unwind and interact with their peers. Too much pressure in schools might mean that students feel compelled to spend more time studying, leaving less time for these non‑academic activities, at the expense of students’ quality of life. [p.75]

One cost is that in many countries where students spend a lot of hours studying is that they spend little or no time in physical activity. The PISA data show that high percentages of students in the high performing East Asian countries do not engage in any significant physical activity during the week. Japan has the highest percentage of students who do no physical activity during the week in the world at 18% while 14% of Korean students don’t do any physical activity during the week. This compares with 6% in Australia and across the OECD. Eleven per cent of students in Hong Kong and Macao don’t do any physical activity during the week while 9% in Singapore and 8% in Taiwan don’t.

Lack of engagement in physical activity has significant implications for health and well-being. The OECD report found that, in the majority of countries, students who exercise three or more days per week reported greater satisfaction with life than students who do not exercise outside of school [p.200]. It also found that students who do not engage in any kind of physical activity outside of school tend to fare poorly in several psychosocial outcomes and are more likely to engage in risky behaviours [p. 202].

Another major health issue associated with long hours of study, but not covered by the OECD report is the very high incidence of myopia. Myopia is at epidemic proportions in East Asia with surveys showing that 80-90% of young adults are myopic. While most myopia is easy to correct with glasses or contact lenses, high myopia leads to potentially severe visual impairment and premature blindness. About 10-20% of students at the end of school in East Asia cities are highly myopic. Early effective blindness amongst the adult population in these countries is now a major health issue.  

Recent research studies show a strong association between the hours spent on education and this epidemic in myopia. The education load outside school in East Asia appears to be a major factor contributing to the emergence of the epidemic.

High education success has its costs and Australia must be careful to avoid taking the East Asian route. The challenge is to combine good learning outcomes for all students, irrespective of family background, with highly satisfied, healthy students. Education policy should have regard to the physical, psychological and social needs of students as well as academic success. Parents should recognise that academic success is not all-encompassing and have equal regard to their children’s happiness and well-being.

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