Testing in China and Finland

I fear I may have led readers astray in yesterday’s post. Although textbooks and teacher readiness are both key factors in the transition to new curricula, one issue that has even the teachers up in arms is testing. Those in the anti-Common Core camp have used the low performance of students on CCSS exams as an argument against the change. I’ll save my rebuttal for later, but the data from which they take this assertion shows that the students and/or the exams are not ready for prime time.

In today’s post, I would like to take a step away from the American education system in order to examine what is going on around the world in this arena. The CCSS are supposed to have been heavily influenced by the practices of countries that have outperformed the U.S., so we should have an understanding of what these other countries have been doing.

To me, there are two ways to improve performance on standardized tests. The first is to increase rigor. Students are often learning very useful information, but they tend to forget much of it by the time they really need it. By drilling harder and studying more, we can increase retention. On the other end of the spectrum, though, we can dramatically change the way students learn. If we can optimize the channel for learning, students need not study more in order to achieve the same or greater benefit. China and Finland make excellent examples of the two approaches.

Those of us simply looking at the data of Chinese students performing extremely well on standardized test tend to assume that the Chinese are doing a great job with their education, but many students disagree. From the Chinese students I have taught, I have heard a common disdain for their educational system. They claim that it stifles creativity, focuses too heavily on tests, and (often most importantly) it steals their childhood. When Chinese students see how much freedom American children have to socialize outside of school or to go do things that we Americans tend to think of as child-like, they begin to resent how much of their time (often 12+ hours a day) have been spent in the classroom or doing schoolwork. From a good friend who is teaching in Chonqing this year, I have heard a corroborating story of stifled creativity. Beyond that, she has told me that Chinese schools will retest students multiple times to improve their scores. Students are often taking multiple “high-stakes” tests each week, upon which their grades are heavily based. In this very limited survey of opinions, it appears that the Chinese have taken the first route to improving education, increasing rigor.

This recounting of issues is not a slam on the Chinese educational system. Given the vast number of business and technology leaders coming out of China each year, they must be doing something right. However, I believe that the United States does not want to go down this road in order to improve our place in the educational rankings. As a country founded on personal liberty and with a culture of rural independence, the U.S. will probably not accept attempts to keep children in school longer.

On the other end of the spectrum are the Finns who have redefined education entirely. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has been accepted as the global standard in comparing students against their peers around the world. In the past four assessments (given every three years) Finnish students have come out #1 or #2 (Hendrickson, 2012). However, unlike many of the Asian countries that perform well on the PISA, the Finns do not simply rigorously test students in preparation for this exam. In contrast, the Finns use much more of what is known as “formative testing.” In contrast with “summative testing,” which merely aims to measure what the students know, formative testing exists for the primary purpose of showing students what they don’t know. If you think about this idea intuitively, you will probably start to wonder why more schools don’t use it. Think back to test you took on which you missed a few questions. Either you made a silly mistake or you completely forgot the information come test time. Which questions do you remember better, the ones you missed or the ones you got right? If you’re like me (and many others), you remember the ones you missed. Unfortunately, your class probably moved on, and you never got a chance to show your new knowledge. The Finns have recognized this, and they are exploiting it. With national standards as guidance, subject teachers in Finland examine students throughout their education based on the work they have done in the respective subject. Continual assessment encourages self-evaluation and reflection, which encourages students to take command of their education. Only the matriculation examination (right before moving on to college) is the kind of “high-stakes” summative testing that has become all too common in the U.S.

I would like to write more on the Finnish education system later, but for now, the big take away is that continually pushing students through standardized tests is the hard way of getting them better at it. I believe that the best way for American students to regain their position at the top of the international ladder is to revolutionize the education system so that students spend less time testing and more time learning. The CCSS appear to be laying the groundwork for the standards that will be needed for this change. However, the implementation of more standardized testing is more of the same in a system that clearly needs an overhaul.

Hendrickson, Katie. “Assessment in Finland: A Scholarl Y Reflection on One Country’s Use of Formative, Summative, and Evaluative Practices.” Mid-Western Educational Researcher 25.1/2 (2012): 33-43. Print.

Image credit: Andreas Meichsner/Verstas


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