Standardized testing in America’s education system is a topic that can raise both eyebrows and blood pressure. We Americans are renowned worldwide for our strong opinions, and issues touching on our children’s education tend to bring out our most passionate viewpoints.
Standardized tests have been around for centuries, often thought to go as far back as ancient China. However, they did not become a significant feature of American education until the late 1800s.
In the 1980s, President Ronald Regan prepared the groundwork for a tremendous shift in education, and standardized testing became “standard” practice for evaluation and policy-making.
Moving forward in history, President George W. Bush pushed for even further reliance on this method of student evaluation in the early 2000s through the No Child Left Behind Act, which mandated “annual testing in reading, math, and science” in many grades and raised spending on testing; thus, setting the stage for where we are today.
Despite over a century of use and four decades of permanency in America’s public schools, the topic of standardized tests still draws debate. On the courts of public opinion and educational policy, pros and cons are batted back and forth like a tennis ball.
Proponents of standardized testing tout benefits like uniformity, ease of comparison, accountability, and charting of individual progress. Opponents suggest more holistic ways to measure students’ abilities and progress. The virtues of these tests are heralded far and wide by one side, while the other seeks to offer suitable alternatives.
Everyone means well, but is there a cut-and-dry answer? While the proverbial jury is still out on that question, another question arises: how does American education measure up to other global education systems in the area of standardized tests? Do other countries use and benefit from these evaluation methods, or have they discarded testing for other more effective options?
A Case for Global Testing
Despite the hot debate surrounding the standardized testing issue, a movement is pushing to have standardized testing implemented worldwide. Such is the stance of The Center for Global Development (CGD), which suggests that standardized tests are a brilliant tool when implemented correctly.
The CDG suggests that current global testing isn’t up to par and presents unreliable and carefully cultivated results. Their stance is that successful students rise to the top, while the undereducated are almost deliberately suppressed and ignored by the data collection methods. However, when properly conducted, CGD believes that global standardized testing could assess progress internationally.
“One of the most attractive features of standardized testing with a representative sample of children is that it forces school systems to confront the reality of children who would otherwise fall through the cracks,” the CGD explains. “In contrast, existing international standardized tests do roughly the opposite – they celebrate the success of the successful and sweep most poor kids in most poor countries under the rug. Most children in the developing world are not included in the sampling frame of any of the well-known international learning assessments.”
The Center for Global Development offers a great point, and its perspective leaves one curious about the possibilities of adequately implemented standardized testing on a global scale.
Defining the Topic
It’s always best to have a baseline understanding of a topic before delving in. So, what are standardized tests?
School of Education offers a comprehensive definition: “Standardized tests are examinations administered and scored in a predetermined, standard manner. They typically rely heavily on question formats, such as multiple choice and true or false, that can be automatically scored…Standardized testing requirements are designed to hold teachers, students, and schools accountable for academic achievement and to incentivize improvement. They provide a benchmark for assessing problems and measuring progress, highlighting areas for improvement.”
Essentially, standardized tests are administered on a wide-scale basis within the education system. These tests target large populations of students and aren’t comprehensive. Instead, they are used to offer insights and data and tend to measure students against the failures and successes of other students instead of against their own progress.
But, how successful could the CGD be in an effort to reform international standardized testing? What’s the global climate toward these tests, and how popular are they?
The weight placed on standardized tests often varies by country, which is a significant factor. The importance attached to testing and its results affect each country’s response to the resulting data.
The U.S. vs. Finland
Due to their standardized testing policies, Finland has drawn international attention. Finnish students don’t experience frequent standardized tests. They are primarily evaluated individually by their teachers. Educators are handed basic assessment criteria and evaluate their students based on their own merit.
American educators and policymakers have watched in awe as Finnish students have forsaken the standardized testing that is so common here in the U.S. and have still managed to compete aggressively via international education standings. American journalists are almost obsessed with comparing America’s education with that of this small Nordic country. Finland’s education system is recognized as one of the best in the world, and this is baffling to proponents of frequent assessment testing.
While standardized testing has been used in the U.S. for years, The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 mandated annual testing in all 50 states. This propelled the use of these tests into overdrive. From elementary school to college and university admission, standardized testing is the “gold standard” for student assessment nationwide.
The Washington Post notes that, according to what appears to be the most recent survey on the topic, American students take an average of 112 standardized tests by the time they graduate high school. That’s about 8 per year.
On the other hand, Finnish students aren’t bogged down with constant standardized exams. Their early education focuses on a relaxed learning experience with very little homework. Unlike American education, political agendas and conflicting concepts don’t influence education policy. Overall, Finland holds a different viewpoint on what education is and what its goal should be.
However, there is one high-stakes test administered at the end of high school, and this one is a biggie.
NPR explains that this one test is comprised of around six exams that take a full day to complete. This means that to pass high school, students experience roughly 40 hours of tests. In other words, while their educational experience is relatively free of standardized testing, and the tests that are administered don’t carry much importance, the final standardized exam is critically important and intense.
The Other Extreme
America has centered its education system around standardized tests as if they are all that matter. For students and teachers, this can be extremely stressful. School funding, teachers’ job security, and students’ academic success often ride on these tests, despite the unsettled science surrounding these exams.
Yet they are not alone. On the other global extreme end of the testing spectrum, some countries create a competitive academic market from the earliest school days because of an almost tunnel vision experience focused on academic achievement and testing success.
In China, students spend their entire education career preparing for one all-important standardized test at the end of their basic education. Years of stress, study, and memorization all culminate in one tremendous exam called the Gaokao. Students’ performance on the Gaokao determines everything from which university they will attend to their marriage prospects. This is a high-stakes test, one that China is known for.
“Once students reach high school, studying hits the roof as they prepare for the Gaokao, the ‘high test.’” ALO7 offers insight into this vital exam. “Their score is the sole determining factor in university admissions, and the final year of high school is dedicated to taking practice tests to prepare for this exam…The importance of education, as well as stamina, all come together on the official test day. The Gaokao takes place in June over the course of two days.”
Any previous school exams are merely preparation for the test. Everything rides on this final test.
In Japan, standardized testing begins at around the age of 12. Before this milestone age, students experience a relatively relaxed education experience. Once the testing begins, so does the stress and emphasis on test results.
One astounding aspect of Japan’s standardized tests? The scores determine several factors about a student’s future—including whether or not they are even able to attend high school. If they score high enough to advance to high school, their scores may even determine which school they attend.
“Japan’s high-stakes high school entrance exam places students into secondary schools that are ranked as vocational, educational or new comprehensive (which combines both),” District Administration explains. “This assignment often determines what type of college students will attend, as well as what type of job they will eventually hold…The test aligns closely to school curriculum and is designed to discourage cheating.”
For more information on the testing practices of other countries around the globe, check out Insider’s analysis piece here.
A Common Practice
U.S. News, in an analysis of the 2015 White House education summit, states that standardized testing is common worldwide. Furthermore, they suggest that many countries use standardized testing more often than in the U.S.
One could also note that where testing seems to be less common, the stakes appear to be much higher.
District Administration (DA) explores this observation, along with a note on America’s Common Core expectations.
“In most of the developed world, high-stakes tests make or break a student’s future, sometimes before the age of 12,” DA explains. “Many countries use national benchmarks to assess students and construct tests to gauge understanding of the core curriculum. This was an original goal of the Common Core, but in the U.S., standardized tests have become more about ranking schools and even teachers.”
A major contrast between the standardized testing practices of countries such as the United States and those of other countries such as China or Japan seems to be the long-term effects of these tests. In the U.S, standardized tests are used for many things, including student assessment and college admission, but they rarely establish irrevocable life paths. On the other end of the spectrum, countries such as Finland minimize the emphasis on standardized tests and focus on the students themselves instead.
Normal, But Is It Optimal?
On a global scale, the United State’s standardized testing policies don’t appear to be out of touch. However, continued research, data, and global comparisons can only help America move forward on the international education front. Watching from the sidelines, one wonders if countries who are experimenting with different policies, such as Finland and other countries on similar paths, are onto something.
An open mind and flexible policies might be the best position to ensure the academic success of our children.
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