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It had become something of a ritual. Every three years, the OECD would release the results of its PISA exams, which are given to hundreds of thousands of students in dozens of countries. And every three years, an American freak-out would ensue as Chinese students seemed to be outperforming their U.S. counterparts by a wide margin.

In 2009, Shanghai students did so well — beating the world in math, science and reading — that President Barack Obama declared it a “Sputnik moment,” requiring immediate action. A similar panic broke out in 2012. But this year proved to be a surprise. The results from the 2015 tests, released this month, showed Chinese students ranked sixth in math, 10th in science and 27th in reading. What happened?

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