High Stakes Testing
High stakes testing is now almost ubiquitous, and it is not hard to see why; it is the most efficient way to test large groups of students, in some ways it is “fair” because all students are asked the same questions and given the same amount of time to complete those questions, and it is easy to make comparisons across test takers. Indeed very important decisions are made based on these scores. Lives can be forever altered by a score that is better or worse than expected. Because of the tremendous consequences of high-stakes testing in the lives of children, their parents, and their teachers, it becomes important to look a little bit closer and discuss the implications.
I have taught in China for nearly 10 years. This is a country full of great test-takers. And they know it. Chinese (along with Korean and a few other Asian nationalities) are so good at taking tests that colleges do not admit them based on the same standards they would for other students from other parts of the world. A deeper investigation here reveals that Chinese students do indeed perform exceptionally well on tests. It is important to know why they test so well, however, because the devil is in the details.
Why do Chinese students seem to outperform Americans on standardized tests?
Much of the superior test scores come simply from the numbers of people competing for the spots in the schools that are taking the international tests. Consider this; there are more honor students in China than there are students in America. Combine the massive numbers with the system students follow, and the reason for the high test scores becomes more obvious. The system I’m referring to is an established process for placing students in schools. Public schools are the most competitive and cheapest. Only the best students can test into public schools. Students who do not test high enough will need to pay 20 or more times more money in order to attend a private school. Public schools are also ranked, with the highest testing students entering the best public schools. This testing, shockingly, begins in grade school. So the best test takers in 4th grade move into more competitive classrooms and more competitive schools for 5th grade. They also test into middle school and high school. Finally, they test into university with the infamous “gao kao.” Obviously this process is far from the “no child left behind” mentality in America which seeks to give immigrants and mentally challenged students a fair shake at a good education, China’s system is ruthless. And there are plenty of students competing for those top spots.
Second, students are hyper focused on their studies, at the expense of a balanced life. My middle school students begin class at 7:50 each morning (earlier on Mondays) and are in the classroom until 9:00 PM each night. They have breaks for lunch and dinner. There is some space in the schedule for some students to take music or art lessons, but far more time is committed to studying here compared to middle schools in America where students are generally released from school before 3:00 PM. Many of those American students only play games or lounge around after school, but many more students participate in sports, clubs, music, and even part-time work. This is the kind of well-rounded approach I hope my children can have in middle school.
Third, students spend a disproportionate amount of time preparing for tests, instead of learning content and training to apply that learned content in their lives. This type of test cramming can happen in America, but not at nearly the same pace or to the same degree as it happens daily in China or Korea. In fact the after school test prep industry is a major industry here. Students have Saturdays off, as well as a half day each Sunday, why not spend that time in cram-school off campus? In fact, most students do just that.
Finally, because the stakes are so high, there is a lot of cheating. This is not unique to China. Cheating has increased in America when the stakes were raised with No Child Left Behind. Teachers in Atlanta cheated to improve their student’s scores. Students around the world cheat as well. But the stakes in China are much higher than what I have seen in America. My co-teachers in China depend on student test scores for their paychecks. Students feel tremendous pressure to perform well in China in order to save their parents tuition money and to give “face” or pride to the family name. This stress is palpable.
But there is a reason why parents of these students are fleeing China’s education system by the hundreds of thousands. Parents do not spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to get their children into American schools because China’s education is so great. They are paying the big bucks precisely because the Chinese system is failing its children. Only the best of the best of the best are able to study at the elite high schools which participate in the international tests. Meanwhile they are competing against the AVERAGE American student, including non-native English speakers and children with disabilities.
I understand that there are few testing methods capable of providing large amounts of information as efficiently as standardized tests. I also realize that teachers and students need to be held accountable. I’m not convinced, however, that high stakes testing is the best solution. I think educators will continue to refine alternatives to high-stakes testing, like inspections, stealth assessments, sampling, portfolios, or live performances.