US students and families need Tests

Updated: 2011-08-10 14:59

By Patrick Mattimore (

  Comments() Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

A document issued by China's State Council, released on Monday, pledged that the government will endeavor to provide compulsory education to 95 percent of Chinese girls over the next ten years.

Enrollment rates for China's senior high schools will reach 90 percent over the next decade, according to the Outline for the Development of Chinese Children (2011-2020).

China is working hard to get more and more children in school, to keep them there for more years, and to equalize educational opportunities.

Meanwhile on the other side of the world, US educators are lost, continuing to insist that what's wrong with America's K-12 education system is the standardized testing system. Claiming tests are the problem is a little like suggesting the scale is broken when we get too fat.

A series of recent cheating incidents regarding standardized tests in Atlanta and other cities has led some reformers to call for an end or, at least, a serious curtailment of testing. But it isn't the test that is the culprit. Blame the cheating teachers. Blame families that refuse to demand that children do their homework. Or blame the society of Americans who refuse to invest adequately in education.

Even before assigning blame, understand that the cheating arose because students are inadequately prepared to take the tests.

American educators are also concerned about the growing pressure to "teach to the test" at the expense of students learning higher-order skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving. But standardized tests are accurate, easy to administer and understand, objective, can be norm or criterion referenced, and most importantly, can test a variety of complexities of student knowledge.

A well-constructed multiple-choice test will not only measure a student's retention of facts, but test that student's ability to apply what she has learned to novel problems and to make connections and inferences. A multiple-choice test that incorporates a taxonomy of higher levels of thinking will force students to analyze, evaluate and synthesize information.

US students don't just score poorly on domestic tests. They lag behind other developed nations on international tests too. On the most recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, a randomly selected representative sample of 15-year-old students from 34 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, US scores were decidedly mediocre - 25th in math, 17th in science, and 14th in reading.

The PISA is one of the two primary measures of worldwide student achievement and Chinese students from Shanghai had the highest scores in each category worldwide. Even testing critics consider the PISA to be a very good test because it forces students to extrapolate what they know and apply critical thinking skills in novel situations.

Given the whining, it's surprising that tests in the US are less determinative of a student's future than are similar tests in many other countries. In China, the gaokao,or National College Entrance Examination, determines where a young person can go to college. A June National Public Radio story about China claimed that Chinese students live in a "test-obsessed culture"” but other countries have tests much like China's zhongkao, the Senior Secondary Education Entrance Examination, which slots placements at China's top secondary schools. Many European countries, for example, give tests after ninth grade to determine academic and vocational tracks for students.

That's not to suggest that the US should model itself after either China's or Europe's approach to education. What it does suggest is that the US could use standardized tests to help families determine for themselves the best career paths for their children instead of listening to the critics disparage the tests.

A big problem in the US is that Americans continue believing the “kids are alright,” and that as in the fictional town of Lake Wobegon "all the children are above average." When asked in polls about the state of education in the US., Americans typically respond that nationally the schools aren't doing well but that their local schools are just fine.

It is that cognitive bias of people which causes them to overestimate how well their own schools are doing and that makes an objective measure like standardized testing so essential.

The author formerly taught Advanced Placement Psychology in the US and is now an adjunct Professor in the Temple University Masters of Law program at Tsinghua University in Beijing.