In reality, few countries hold educators accountable for students’ test scores. Many of the
countries that the United States most admires for their rankings on international comparisons— for example, Canada, Finland, France, Japan, and Sweden—do not
Testing Practices in Other Countries
Like the United States, England holds educators accountable for students’ scores on standardized tests, although major differences exist between the two countries’ accountability systems. England has a national curriculum, which serves as the basis for its tests and avoids the problem so prevalent in many U.S. school districts where, in the absence of a clear curriculum, the tests become the curriculum. England’s national curriculum is one of Europe’s most prescriptive. Tests are administered at several points throughout the students’ schooling, beginning in early elementary school, with the scores used to rank primary and secondary schools. The initial versions of the tests were designed to be “authentic,” to give a fuller picture of a student’s learning and avoid the problems inherent in paper-and-pencil standardized tests. But these tests took up so much time and left so many students unsupervised as the teacher tested students individually that paper-and-pencil tests eventually replaced them. The test-based accountability policy remains highly controversial and raises issues similar to those currently discussed in the United States. A major question is the validity of using test
scores, which are strongly influenced by students’ socioeconomic status, to evaluate the quality of education. This problem is endemic in national and international test score comparisons. England has continued its tradition of administering examinations at age 16 to determine which students will move on to A-level (advanced level) upper secondary schools. Examination results at the end of upper secondary school then determine the universities that a student can attend and the student’s area of specialty. Students used to be tested at age 11 to determine admission to highly selective “grammar schools,” which served as a pipeline to selective universities. In an attempt to make the education system more egalitarian, England replaced the grammar schools with comprehensive schools. However, this move may have had the opposite effect by encouraging affluent families, particularly in center cities, to move out of the state system into private schools.
Turkey’s heavily bureaucratic and centralized education system is modeled after the French system. It has been called “more French than the French system” because French schools have undergone changes in the past 20 years that have not taken place in Turkish schools. However, Turkey’s attempts to reduce the emphasis on rote learning have had limited success. Turkey is a developing country with limited resources, high poverty rates, and relatively low access to secondary and higher education. It also has one of the highest birthrates in the world, which stretches the country’s scarce education resources thin. These factors affect how national examinations play out in the country. Examinations in Turkey are first administered at the end of basic education, although they influence what schools teach long before that. These exams determine admission into the prestigious Anatolian and science high schools, which accept approximately one-quarter of the students who take the exam. Students who wish to enter a university must take another
nationwide exam at the end of high school; but because demand outweighs available spaces, acceptance rates are low (around 20 percent). Because of these conditions, Turkish students experience “some of the world’s worst exam anxiety”
Germany has a highly stratified education system that tracks students, generally beginning in grade 5, into three types of schools: the Gymnasium, which provides an academic, university-track education; the Realschule, which provides a general and vocational/technical education and occasionally permits transfer to a Gymnasium; and the
Hauptschule, which provides a lower-level general and vocational education that often leads to unemployment. Teachers and parents—notan examination—determine a child’s placement. Because socioeconomic status highly correlates with academic achievement, affluent students are disproportionately represented in the Gymnasium, whereas the children of migrant workers are often tracked into the Hauptschule. The 2003 Program for International Assessment (PISA) study showed that the performance of German students correlates more highly with socioeconomic status than does the performance of students from almost any other country, suggesting that Germany’s tracking system magnifies the effects of socioeconomic status (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2004). Students attending the Gymnasium through grade 13 receive a school-leaving certificate called the Abitur, which fewer than one-quarter of German students receive. The Abitur provides access to universities after students pass a final examination.
In Singapore, educators are only held accountable for their students’ test scores in the sense that secondary schools and junior colleges are ranked in publicly reported “league tables”; the 40 highest-ranked secondary schools receive cash awards. But this “accountability” system bears little resemblance to NCLB. In addition to test scores and a “value-added” measure, the rankings include a measure of how students in each school
performed on a physical fitness test, combined with the percentage of overweight students in the school. The main purpose of testing in Singapore is to determine student placement in the education system and access to elite academic programs—not to evaluate teachers. The system is heavily tracked; in a 10-year span, students are “streamed” three times. The goal is to make the system as efficient as possible in training students to contribute to the national economy. The Singaporean system places enormous pressure on students to score well in the national examinations, which play a major role in determining students’ futures. At the same time, Singapore is attempting to reduce its emphasis on rote learning and pay greater attention to critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity. Singapore’s traditional classroom practices, however, have been difficult to
change because many believe that a flexible learning environment is inconsistent with the demands of an examination system that requires students to memorize large amounts of material.
Japan has a highly competitive examination system, but it doesn’t hold educators accountable for students’ scores on standardized tests. Indeed, Japan specifically excludes student achievement on these tests as a criterion for the self-evaluations that Japanese schools conduct. In Japanese public schools, elementary and lower secondary students do not take high-stakes tests nor are they assigned to schools by achievement. The examination pressures begin between lower and upper secondary school, when examination results determine the upper secondary school that students will enter. The pressures that students applying to universities face have been well publicized, as have the supplementary schools (juku) that many Japanese students attend to study for the examinations. In recent years, because of a dramatically declining population, Japanese students have not had a problem gaining admission into higher education institutions. However, competition for admission to the most prestigious universities remains severe because graduates of these universities usually fill the top jobs in government and industry. Japan, like Singapore, is attempting to increase the flexibility of the learning environment to cultivate “Japanese people with ‘rich humanity’ and ‘rich creativity’ by letting individual abilities grow” One component of this reform has been to reduce the school week from six to five days to give students more time to explore nature and participate in community-based activities. However, many families appear to be using this “free” time to increase their children’s participation in juku.Although the response to Japan’s reforms has generally been positive, conservative politicians and some parents are concerned about changing an education system that they believe played a major role in the country’s rapid economic growth after World War II, about encouraging individualism at the expense of Japan’s traditional values of cooperation and consensus, about weakening nationalism, and—perhaps most important to parents—about making any changes that might decrease their children’s test scores and chances of gaining admission into prestigious universities.
For many centuries, the Chinese have viewed their country’s examination system, which dates back to the Shui dynasty in 603 CE, as the main route out of poverty for a child from a low-income family. However, like Singapore and Japan, China is attempting to reduce its reliance on rote learning. Realizing that examinations inevitably drive classroom practice, China has revised its highly competitive university entrance exams by requiring students to integrate knowledge from a wide range of fields. For example, a recent exam question on the increased number of private cars in China required students to draw on the diverse fields of statistics, comparative analysis, supply and production, urban traffic, pollution, and social studies. China’s reforms in classroom and examination practices have occurred in an exceptionally short period of time. China’s practice of building on traditional culture appears to have contributed to its unusual success in implementing change. China’s reforms, however, are not without controversy. The new teaching approaches have not reached the majority of schools in China’s decentralized education system, with its increasing gaps in school quality between the country’s rich and poor areas. Some Chinese are concerned that if examinations reduce their emphasis on memorization, children from
poor families will be at an even greater disadvantage than before because they will be tested on skills that their schools have not taught them. Chinese students face a highly competitive and stressful examination system. Yet China, like many other countries, has concluded that national exams are the best way to ensure objectivity and avoid the favoritism that might occur if the system permitted greater subjectivity in university admissions decisions