Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Testing, as Bad as the Chinese Way

Last Sunday, the New York Times elected to give over its education coverage to reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal, an M.D. who normally writes for the "gray lady" about epidemic diseases and other scientific and environmental topics.

Titled "Testing, the Chinese Way," Ms. Rosenthal's banner-style lead story in the Times's "Week in Review" section argues the merits of frequent testing based on her children's experiences in China while attending the International School of Beijing, an institution likely more closely akin in NYC to Dalton, Chapin, or Columbia Grammar than to the P.S. 1's, 10's, or 45's attended by most children. Nevertheless, in extrapolating from her observations in China, Ms. Rosenthal erroneously equates her children's experiences with those of regular Chinese students and simultaneously conflates early childhood testing (Grades K - 2), in-class quizzes and progress-monitoring exams for older students, and the high-stakes tests actively promoted by the current wave of "education reforms."

First, let's consider the Chinese education system to which Ms. Rosenthal alludes. She conveniently ignores the fact that in virtually every major Chinese city, foreigners' international schools largely operate outside the Chinese curricular and examination system. She also chooses to omit -- or perhaps is simply unaware -- that in most of China, students in elementary school are placed in middle schools based on a single test result taken at the end of elementary school (in China, the sixth grade), and they are then placed again in high schools (after ninth grade) based on another single, standardized exam at the end of middle school. Those exams not only create citywide, rank-ordered student tracking systems as early as sixth grade, they are also used to rank order schools and rate teachers and principals in much the way America's currently ascendant "education reformers" are seeking to implement.

By the time a Chinese boy or girl enters high school, he or she has already faced two high stakes exams that have, for those who scored lower, already effectively eliminated academic high school and further higher education from their future. For Ms. Rosenthal to claim, as she does, that the Chinese "march of tests" is regarded as "not evil or particularly anxiety provoking" is patently absurd. There's a very good reason why Chinese students used the term heise qiyue, Black July, when referring to the national collect entrance exams (they have since been moved to June, or probably heise jiuyue for Black June.

Furthermore, with regard to Chinese high schools, virtually one hundred percent of the educational effort and focus in those schools is directed at preparation for those one-time, one-shot, three-day national college entrance exams that will determine which students will go to college as well as which ones. On several occasions, I have asked English language teachers in Suzhou, where I taught, if they wanted to have their students participate in what I viewed as unique English language learning opportunities, such as reading and analyzing together a vastly simplified version of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or contributing student-written articles about their city to an English language website. The response from teachers is invariably the same: they love the ideas, but they can't afford the time it would take away from their fixed, text-centered college examination preparing curriculum. In point of fact, I had never once seen a public high school assessment in China that wasn't either an exam or a standard homework problem assignment. There simply aren't any other mechanisms -- research projects, posters, surveys, book reports, thesis papers, creative writing -- used for measuring students' knowledge.

Ms. Rosenthal's support for more frequent assessments is a grossly misleading reading of the current education reform movement. Most teachers, for many years, have used regular, in-class exams and quizzes for student assessment and diagnosis; there have always been enough tests of that sort, and rare indeed were calls from parents that more were needed.

The difference Ms. Rosenthal fails to appreciate is the education reformers' efforts to transform testing from an educative means (which her own children have clearly experienced in Beijing) to the primary end of education (certainly not her objective for her own children's education). The ill effects of this misguided, end-rather-than-means movement are being still further compounded by employing those exams as tools for evaluating and rewarding/punishing teachers and principals or even closing entire schools. Such high stakes inevitably pervert the entire system, influencing curriculum, teachers' time allocation to different subjects, teaching methods, and test administration behaviors such as coaching or outright cheating.

Curiously enough, frequent tests and quizzes ARE NOT really defining characteristics of the Chinese school system, but hugely high stakes exit exams ARE. As Professor Yong Zhao points out so clearly (here and here), this is precisely what China is now seeking to move away from at the very moment our education reform movement is so eagerly embracing it.

Ms. Rosenthal appears fortunate that her two children are now ensconced in one of NYC's specialized high schools where these issues can be safely ignored. Regardless, is copying the Chinese system really the education she desires for the rest of the city's public school children?

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