Before Jesus Christ was born, human beings were taking tests. Civil service exams date back to China’s Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD.) Hiring test-prep tutors - and cheating - go back about as far, by the way.
U.S. students now take more standardized tests than ever. Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, our kids get tested in grades three through eight, and at least once between tenth and twelfth grade.
Have we lost our minds? Many teachers and critics of school reform insist that we have, citing other, higher-performing nations as evidence of our relative insanity.
“Finland has no standardized testing at all,” edu-pundit Diane Ravitch said at the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer. “They don’t do year-to-year testing. No high-performing nation in the world does year-to-year testing.”
Doesn’t that sound lovely? Imagine: a mythical land of reindeer, lingonberries and test-free schools. But is it actually true? Do the world’s top-performing school systems disdain standardized tests - and is that part of what makes them great?
I spent the past year visiting and studying these schools, interviewing teachers, kids and parents. And what I found was much more interesting than what Ravitch says.
First of all, let’s be clear: Finland does have standardized testing. They have had it for at least 159 years. They have less of it, for sure. (Which is not to suggest that they have less testing overall, but more on that later.) In fact, in every high-performing nation, tests are embedded in the wiring of schools - particularly in high schools. In the developed world, 76 percent of students attend high schools that use standardized tests, according to the OECD.
The more important question is not how many tests countries use, but what kind of tests and for what purpose. In Finnish high schools, seniors take a standardized, national matriculation exam that determines their chances of attending a Finnish university. This exam stretches out over three grueling weeks and takes about 43 hours. Teachers follow students into the bathroom to make sure they don’t cheat.
This spring, I met Tiina Stara, a veteran high school teacher in Finland, just one week before her students’ exam results came out. She told me that she worries about the way this test drives instruction and stresses our students.
“They are feeling a lot of pressure,” she said. We sat in a lounge area in her school in Pietarsaari, located in a remote corner of northwest Finland. “I sometimes want so badly to do something fun with them,” she says, her fist clenching, “because I think it’s very important that they enjoy studying.”
For a moment, Stara sounded a lot like an American high school teacher.
The difference though - and this is big - is that in Finland the students are the ones who feel the pressure. In the U.S., when we talk about “high-stakes testing,” we are usually talking about tests that have no consequences for students - only for school management and employees (if that.) We are talking, in other words, about something else entirely.
The other major difference is that Finland’s standardized test is sophisticated.
“It’s a very good exam,” Stara says.
The Finnish portion of the test, for example, requires that students write three short essays over the course of six hours. They must read a text, analyze why it is effective, and explain which devices are being used. The foreign language test takes three days and includes a listening exam that lasts one hour.
And aside from this one giant standardized exam, Finnish students take a battery of other tests all year long. Over the course of the school year, Finnish high schoolers take about six full weeks of exams designed by their teachers. Those exams determine their grades. In fact, when surveyed, Finnish kids cite the high number of tests as one reason they don’t like school.
In Finland, tests are hard, and they affect students’ lives. The same is true in South Korea, the other top-performing nation on international tests.
In some states like New York we have graduation tests too, some of which are challenging, many of which are not. But here’s another crucial difference, the most important one of all: Our teachers and principals have nothing close to the training, background and support that their Finnish counterparts have to help their kids succeed on these tests.
Why is that?
Well, Finland became the top school system in the world after the Finnish government made it much harder to become a teacher and started handing out school funding based on student need. (Finland’s teacher-training programs accept about 10 percent of applicants - about the same admissions rate as MIT.) They started from the logical beginning, in other words, rather than trying to reverse engineer an entire industry through blunt accountability measures, as we are doing now.
I now think that tests are a wonderful symbol for how a society feels about education. Not what people say they value but what they actually value. In top-performing countries like Finland and Korea, tests are rigorous and consequential. They represent high expectations for everyone.
In the U.S., we don't really, truly believe that all kids must - and can - master difficult content to succeed in life. That hasn’t, after all, been our historical experience before the globalized economy began to deliver punishing blows based on how much people know.
We also don't really trust and respect teachers all that much either, partly because most teachers colleges and union leaders have done very little to earn that trust, and partly because we don’t pay our teachers the kind of money that translates into real respect in America.
Our testing reflects this ambiguity. We have weak tests that vary from state to state and exist mainly to ham-handedly force teachers and principals to work harder, while doing next to nothing to actually improve their effectiveness.
Maybe we don’t need more or fewer tests. Maybe we need harder tests - and more honest conversations.
Amanda Ripley, an Emerson Fellow at the New America Foundation, is writing a book about learning around the world. "The Smart Kids Club" will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2012.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.