Lessons from educational testing abroad

Information about testing practices in other countries is often imprecise and misleading, according to Michael J. Feuer, National Research Council, and Kathleen Fulton, Office of Technology Assessment, United States Congress. For this reason they recently made an in-depth study of education policies and testing practices in China, Japan, France, Germany, England and Sweden.

Their purpose was to determine how these countries achieve consistently high standings on international tests. Feuer and Fulton found that testing practices vary greatly from country to country. Japan primarily, relies on multiple-choice questions. France emphasizes essays, and important exams in Germany often are oral.

Important similarities in educational systems

But despite differences, there are important similarities in these countries’ educational systems. All rely on national education agencies to set goals, all create detailed curricula to meet these goals, and all rely on highly content- and syllabus-specific standardized tests to measure student achievement in core subjects.

The education agencies also establish guidelines for teacher training. This amounts in each of these countries to a national educational mandate. Because there is such a clear connection between high-school curricula and college-entrance tests, students in these countries learn early that studying hard in school has a direct bearing on their future success.

In addition to a rigorous national curriculum, Japanese students also receive significant extra help outside of school. About one-third of Japanese students who take college-entrance exams spend an extra postgraduate year studying with a tutor or in a private school. Tutoring is common throughout the school years, and probably accounts for much of the academic success of Japanese students. Sixteen percent of elementary students and 45 percent of junior high school students attend a tutoring school in addition to regular classes.

Despite their success on international tests, the educational systems in all these countries are in transition. At this time, only one-fourth to one-third of college-age students are eligible for university entrance and most countries are trying to increase this figure. However, tracking limits the number of students taking college-prep courses.

German students separated into three tracks

In Germany, students are separated at age 10 into three tracks. One track leads to vocational training at age 15, another track leads at age 16 to “intermediate occupations,” and a third track is for university-bound students. In Japan, students are tracked after 9th grade, but in England students follow a standard curriculum through age 16. Recent reforms in Sweden guarantee equal education to all students through high school. In Sweden, all subjects (including music, drawing and handicraft) carry equal weight in determining class rank, which is used, along with standardized test scores in core subjects, to determine eligibility for university. In all six countries there is a strong link between secondary schools and universities because higher education as well as primary and secondary education is overseen by the government.

Feuer and Fulton reason that a national consensus regarding educational goals, curricula and teacher training increases the homogeneity of teaching and eliminates the need for assessments designed solely to ensure that all students are receiving similar educational experiences. In contrast to the United States, European and Asian nations do not test students in order to gauge the performance of their teachers or schools.

Such assessments are carried out by government inspectors. In addition, these countries rely on teachers to administer and score most standardized tests. Although tests are designed for use nationally, regional education agencies often have some choice in selecting specific test questions from national lists. Teachers also have some latitude in setting grading standards.

National consensus key to success

Feuer and Fulton conclude that the success of these countries in educating their students is due to national consensus on educational goals and curricula, which allows them to test student knowledge in depth. In the United States, where there is still an aversion to central curricular control, standardized tests measure only the most basic skills common to all schools. These researchers believe that changing standardized testing without establishing national goals and curricula will not significantly improve teaching or learning in our schools.

“Educational Testing Abroad and Lessons for the United States”, Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, Volume 13, Number 2,Summer 1994, pp.31-39.

Published in ERN, September/October 1994, Volume 7, Number 4.

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