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To Improve Education, U.S. Must Shift Focus Away from Standardized Tests

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam results recently released, and the United States again did not fare well relative to the 34 other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations. The U.S. ranked 26th in mathematics, 17th in reading, and 21st in science, spurring more call for action regarding education policy.

In an attempt to better understand the situation, the Obama administration teamed with the OECD to organize a campaign known as PISA Day. In collaboration with the College Board, ACT, Business Roundtable, Asia Society, and more, PISA Day aims to solve the issue of “educational stagnation” and to “learn how to improve assessments and education in the United States.”

Along with Obama’s Race to the Top initiative and Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, education policies have attempted to tackle many of the possible hindrances in the education system, including inefficient student/teacher evaluation, funding, and lack of emphasis on common core (math, reading, English, and science) subjects. However, these policies and initiatives have not only failed to produce adequate results, it ignores and exacerbates one of the most fundamental problems with our education system in the first place: standardized testing.

The PISA exam is a standardized test, albeit not in the sense most Americans are familiar with. It has a focus on application skills as well as information analysis. The U.S., according to the PISA analysis, significantly lags in the former.

According to the report:

“Students in the United States have particular weaknesses in performing mathematics tasks with higher cognitive demands, such as taking real-world situations, translating them into mathematical terms, and interpreting mathematical aspects in real-world problems.”

In such an expanding global economy, such skills remain vital for both individual and national economic success. From the rankings, it seems as though affluent regions in China, such as Shanghai (which ranked 1st in math), will have an advantage in the future assuming nothing changes.

What does America need to do to improve the quality of education nationwide?

Ironically, despite the perceived success in the standardized evaluation of critical thinking skills, Shanghai still produced a large array of students “who lacked curiosity and the ability to think critically or independently.” According to Jiang Xueqin, a deputy principle and director of the international division of Peking University High School, this results from a testing-based culture.

He goes on to claim that the PISA results “are a symptom of the problem” for Shanghai since the PISA tests have become a standard bearer for international comparison regarding education and economic success. In order to fare well, students focus on test taking skills that take time away from real-life application skills such as teamwork and communication, and leaves “students with little time and room for learning on their own.”

The Chinese government has accepted this reality. That is why, despite their international success in education rankings, the government has begun to reform their education system, with an emphasis on steering away from a testing-based curriculum. Chinese documents state that a testing culture “severely hamper[s] student development as a whole person, stunt their healthy growth, and limit opportunities to cultivate social responsibilities, creative spirit, and practical abilities in students.” Instead of testing, the reforms aim to develop student engagement, stress, and happiness.

In other words, China has taken the Finland approach.

Finland’s education system underwent massive reform roughly 30 years ago. It used to share some of the variables other nations had: top-down approaches, teacher accountability/measurement, and testing. Now, however, things have drastically changed — for the better.

Finland, unlike China and the United States, no longer administers standardized tests, with the exception of their National Matriculation Exam taken by students in their equivalent of an American high school. The lack testing allows teachers to have a more flexible curriculum, one that promotes the arts and culture versus cutting them, while keeping student stress levels lower than their international counterparts.

In addition, students receive ample free time: 75 minutes of recess compared to 27 in the US. The extra play time, according to pediatricians, can help children better develop their social, emotional, and cognitive development. They also have many opportunities for individual help, which keeps Finland’s educational equality goal in check.

Following the equality philosophy, Finland does not bolster competition among teachers, students, or schools. Instead, they foster an environment based on cooperation, allowing teachers to interact with one another to help each individual student as needed. The country does not rank schools or teachers, does not separate students based on ability, and does not even have a single private school.

As a result, Finland’s education system has become the “best in the world,” despite teachers only spending roughly four hours in the classroom and students receiving very little homework. Even when looking at PISA exams, Finland scores at or near the top every single time, beating out its Scandinavian counterparts such as Norway, which has taken a US-based education approach.

The United States has much to learn from both China and Finland. China has realized the burdens testing-cultures create, and has begun to alter their philosophy.  And while it may not be possible to support students in the way Finland does through free healthcare, meals, and mental health checkups, it can still take some necessary steps to better the education system. This approach, however, must not only come from the government.

For example, schools and universities can fight the testing culture by placing less emphasis on them. In fact, DePaul University (along with more than 500 other institutions) has already initiated a test-optional policy for applications, meaning students do not have to submit their ACT or SAT scores if students “do not feel [their] test results are a good reflection of [their] academic performance.”

The results at DePaul after one year indicate that “there is little difference in academic success between those who submitted standardized test results when applying and those who didn’t.”

This contrasts the policies put forth by the Bush and Obama administrations, which instead places higher emphasis on testing, competition, and private options — the exact opposite of what the Finland approach entails.

However, recent policies and rhetoric has steered toward the Chinese approach: more class time, more homework, less arts/culture, and more testing. China has realized the fault in this approach and is beginning to change. America must change as well and reverse its entire education policy if they want to remain competitive in the long-term future.

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