Education Reform Testing

Yong Zhao and Pasi Sahlberg: Why Andreas Schleicher Is Wrong About Testing in the US

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Andreas Schleicher is the director of that section of the OECD in charge of international testing. He recently claimed that Americans are not over tested. He can’t understand why parents and teachers are complaining so much, when students in other nations take many more tests than American students.

 

Since this seemed counter-intuitive, I called on two great international experts–Pasi Sahlberg and Yong Zhao– who work with OECD data frequently. Both responded promptly.

 

Here are their comments on Schleicher’s claim that American students are not over tested:

 

Pasi Sahlberg, author of Finnish Lessons and currently a Visiting Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, writes:

 

“Education myth: American students are over-tested,” says the title in the Hechinger Report on 7 December 2015. That story covers the frustration of OECD’s education chief Andreas Schleicher after he attended recent education summit held at the White House. Schleicher concluded that the United States is not a country of heavy testing and that standardized testing is not the bottleneck for improvement.

 

Wait a minute. So, standardized testing is not an issue in the U.S. education? My experience based on school visits and many discussions with parents and teachers around the U.S. suggest quite the opposite. It is clear to me that one of the main obstacles in focusing more on real learning, giving more room to music and arts in American schools, building learning in schools around curiosity, creativity and exploration of interesting issues, is standardized testing.

 

I have been in school districts where principals told me that they spend up to one third of annual instructional time to testing and related activities. I have seen tens of schools and hundreds of teachers who tell how there is no more recess or physical education or music in their schools because time is needed to do well in obligatory tests. And it is not just tests themselves but everything that comes with high-stakes nature of them: fear of failure, pressure of performance, and time spend in and out of school on preparing for these tests. And perhaps most importantly, I don’t know any other OECD country where cheating and corruption are so common in all levels of the school system than it is in the U.S., only because dominance of standardized tests.

 

Schleicher writes in his blog that “over the years I have learned to trust the reports of students on what actually happens in the classroom more than the claims of many experts.” But how can a teenager tell the difference between standardized test and other kind of classroom assessments that are rarely standardized? If 15-year-old students in Finland tell that they take standardized tests three to five times a year they clearly don’t know what standardized tests are. And how could they when they have never seen one.

 

I tend to trust more on quantitative research and data from experts than surveys that reflect often opinions more than actual facts. In a recent (October 2015) study by the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS) researchers examined the amount of standardized testing in American urban schools. Their research found that “students in the 66 districts were required to take an average of 112.3 tests between pre-K and grade 12.” It is worth of note that this number does not include optional tests, diagnostic tests for students with disabilities or English learners, school-developed or required tests, or teacher designed or developed tests. According to this same study the average student in these districts will typically take about eight standardized tests per year, e.g., two NCLB tests (reading and math), and three formative exams in two subjects per year. This is heavy testing to me. It is about eight times more than in Finland.

 

Andreas Schleicher is right when he writes that “it is actually very hard to find comparative data on the prevalence of testing in OECD countries”. But he is wrong in hoping that students would be a more reliable source of answers than experts. When 20 per cent of students in the state of New York opted out mandated standardized state tests earlier this year, it was a clear sign that both students and parents think that their schools are over-tested.

 

In the end, what Schleicher’s simple international comparisons ignore is that toxic and often misused accountability systems that link data from standardized tests to teachers, schools, districts and, through PISA, to entire education systems. GSCS’s study confirmed that “there is no correlation between the amount of mandated testing time and the reading and math scores in grades four and eight on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)”. Therefore, rather than suggesting that there is still room for more standardized testing in the U.S. it would benefit more to advice authorities and politicians to invest that money to improve the existing tests. Standardized testing is a growing industry globally and those with most interests in having even more testing in schools are corporations that have direct economic interest to test our children over and over again.

 

Yong Zhao, author of Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and the Worst) Schools in the World, and professor at the University of Oregon, also responded with the following post: “Are American Students Overtested: Schleicher vs. Schleicher”:

 

It begins:

 

 

Just as the U.S. is about to move away from over testing its students, PISA’s Andreas Schleicher says American students are not really over-tested: “The U.S. is not a country of heavy testing,” said Schleicher in a column published in the Hechinger Report.

 

Schleicher drew the conclusion based on PISA 2009 student survey data, which was not released publicly. Schleicher claims to “trust the reports of students on what actually happens in the classroom more than the claims of many experts” in his blog post that argues that U.S. is not a country of heavy testing. One wonders why he has not released that data.

 

However the publically available PISA report contains standardized testing data reported by school principals. Given the lack of access to the student data, reports by school principals are the best source we have. I’d like to think that school principals know as well as students if standardized tests are given in schools. Moreover, comparing the few data points Schleicher reveals in his blog suggests that the perception of students is not far off from that of principals. Based on the principal reports about standardized testing, I found Schleicher’s statement misleading, to say the least.

 

Is U.S. a country of heavy testing?

 

First, what is considered heavy testing? Schleicher seems to think at least once a month is not heavy enough: “In many countries there is a test going on every month,” while in the U.S., “only 2% of students said they took standardized tests at least once a month.”

 

Is 3 to 5 times a year heavy? That is about one standardized test every 2 months of the school year. About 40% of American students take standardized tests 3 to 5 times a year. How about 1 to 2 a year? That’s almost every American student (97%).

 

Schleicher’s conclusion is based on international comparisons. He highlighted two nations that have more standardized tests than the United States but neglected to mention that there many countries that have fewer standardized tests. For example, according to the 2009 PISA principal survey, 76.4% of students in Slovenia, 73.2% in Belgium, 71.1% in Spain, 67.6% in Austria, and 60% in Germany “never” had standardized testing. Japan (34.6%), U. K. (32.5%), Australia (29.9%), and Ireland (35.0%) also have more students never given standardized tests. Only 2.5% of students in the U.S. never had a standardized test. Only three OECD nations—Korea (2.1%), Luxembourg (1.0%), and Finland (1.5%) – reported lower percentage of students who never take standardized tests.

 

While the U.S. does not have the largest percentage of students given standardized testing “at least once a month,” it is one of the countries with the largest proportion of students experiencing standardized testing “1 to 5 times a year.” With over 95% of students who attend schools whose principals reported giving standardized testing 1 to 5 times a year, the U.S. is only after four (Korea:96.5%, Finland:96.3%, Luxembourg: 96.4%, Hong Kong: 98.4%) out of the nearly 70 countries participated in PISA had a slightly larger percentage of students experiencing standardized testing 1 to 5 times a year. Even Shanghai, Singapore, and Chinese Taipai reported fewer students taking standardized tests with this frequency.

 

More importantly, does standardized testing help improve education quality?

 

To learn the answer to this crucial question, open the link and read Zhao’s conclusion.

 

 

 

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