Math Testing: U.S. vs. U.S.S.R.

iStock_000014316766XSmallU.S. educators are concerned about the way in which short-answer, multiple-choice tests influence the curriculum. Because these tests are used as a measure of achievement, pressure is put on teachers and students to focus on quick, accurate computation and, therefore, this has the indirect effect of de-emphasizing problem solving and concept development. Lynn Arthur Steen, Professor of Mathematics at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, and a member of a delegation of U.S. mathematicians that visited the Soviet Union recently, reports that unlike the short answer tests used in the U.S., the kinds of tests used in the U.S.S.R. actually encourage the development of conceptual understanding and problem solving skills. As a result, they exert a positive influence on curriculum and play an integral part in student learning.

The U.S.S.R.’s system of mathematics education, Steen writes, “has produced a tradition of excellence in mathematical research that is as good as any produced in the Western countries.” This, in spite of the fact that, like the U.S., the U.S.S.R. has a very large and diverse population and considerable unevenness in the quality of mathematics education it provides. Similarities aside, Steen reports that our two systems differ greatly in the way in which students are tested.

While students in the U.S. are subjected to a series of short-answer, multiple-choice tests throughout their school careers, students in the U.S.S.R. are regularly given oral or written essay tests. These tests, Steen reports, are open-ended and parallel the type of mathematical thinking required in the workplace. As these tests encourage higher-order thinking and creative problem solving, they also provide an opportunity for student learning. Steen calls on the U.S. to develop tests “that measure what’s important, rather than what’s cheap and easy to grade.”

“Mathematics in the U.S. and the Soviet Union”Educational Leadership February 1991 Volume 48, Number 5, p. 26-27

Published in ERN May/June 1991 Volume 4 Number 3

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