“What many supporters of Common Core ignore is that the “rigorous” high-stakes testing approach that they wish to impose on our children has been experimented with in many other nations, and has been a complete failure. Once in place it dominates all instruction, turning schools into test prep factories, and students into test-taking machines.”
I’m a full-time University teacher, living and working in Japan since 1994. We have high-stakes exams given throughout the nation each winter, which students must pass to enter the high school or college they wish to attend. Students spend years preparing for these tests, because the stakes are so high.
One of the things I notice each year is that many Japanese students get 30 to 50% of the answers wrong. Sometimes answers are close but test makers are looking for the “exact” right answer. If the student spells a word wrong they may receive half credit or no points. Why are test makers so strict with spelling? Because these kinds of high-stakes tests are norm referenced, designed to rank and sort students, nothing more.
Those who design entrance exams in Asia have purposefully made the tests really hard and expect high rates of failure- have designed the system for it- cause the purpose is to create a bell curve, not to help all students succeed or learn. The exams are designed to select out the top 25% who studied the hardest, who put the time in to accurately memorize the information correctly.
As a result, most Asian junior and senior high schools are focused on test-prep, not deep thinking, skill development or creative learning. Both my sons have gone through Japanese public schools. From 7th grade onwards, the purpose of most of their instruction has been to prepare them for the high-stakes entrance exams of high school and college.
Right now, my youngest son is at the end of his second year of middle school. He leaves at 8am each morning, usually gets home around 6pm, has dinner and then goes to the cram school (juku) nearby. He returns in the evening between 1o and 11:30pm, has a bath, watches a few youtube videos and goes to sleep.
There are of course many breaks during the day, and that’s what keeps him going. He’s got a great sense of humor and many friends. He’s adapted to the “rigor” of the system, and has been in a good mood since last Autumn when his test scores improved. Students who rise to the top with high stakes testing frequently start to enjoy the study, cause they are succeeding. Unfortunately, for those who fall below “average” it can be a living hell.
What’s also very concerning is that because of the massive amount of information students have to memorize, most don’t have time to develop useful skills. With English education my sons are some of the few who can actually understand English media (like movies and music) and use the language to communicate. Other Japanese students are just memorizing the vocabulary and grammar, basically trying to cram English dictionaries into their heads.
As I wrote in another essay, this perfectionistic test-obsessed culture of schools in Asia helps to train obedience and hard work, but has a dark side. In the NY Times, Yale instructor Se-Woong Koo described the endless pressure in South Korea as tantamount to “child abuse,” associated with high rates of suicide, physical illness and severe depression. In China, (see this CNN news video ), the competition is so intense that some students have been hooked up to IV drips in their classrooms, so that they can study from early morning till late at night, without passing out from exhaustion.
What many supporters of Common Core ignore is that the “rigorous” high-stakes testing approach that they wish to impose on our children has been experimented with in many other nations, and has been a complete failure. Once in place it dominates all instruction, turning schools into test prep factories, and students into test-taking machines.
In the case of English language education it’s a disastrous system, shutting down actual skill development, creativity, communication and authentic learning. It treats children like robots, where the focus is on cramming in information for exams instead of taking the time to practice and apply it. Competence and mastery requires an ability to use knowledge skillfully, creatively and in meaningful ways, not just to remember it for tests.
Here in the city where we live, these tests don’t come until the end of junior high school, but students start to prepare once they enter 7th grade. In elementary school they don’t have this kind of testing, in fact they don’t even receive grades. Both of my sons loved Japanese elementary school, where teachers are given the time and creative freedom to take a much more learner-centered approach.
Unfortunately, by the time they get to University, most young people have had six years of test-obsessed training. As this N.Y. Times editorial noted a few years ago, the result is that many college students in Asia are exhausted, learning how to memorize information and take tests, but *not* to think too hard.
If the US starts to implement overly difficult “selection” tests from K-12 with the new Common Core “aligned” PARCC exams being developed by Pearson, its going to be a complete and utter disaster, in my opinion. Even if “official” standardized testing time is reduced in most states, teachers will be forced to teach-to-the-test as long as these high-stakes exams are in place.
That’s what has happened in Asia. Most students only have to take entrance exams twice in their lives, yet fear of the consequences of failure dominates all school instruction for six years. Don’t let the lies and money behind this juggernaut fool you. Remember the Titanic & Hindenburg? That’s what Common Core “aligned” testing and instruction is, a disaster in the making.
If we want our young people to be highly skilled, self-directed, creative and successful then parents and teachers should take a look at the learner-centered education systems of Finland and Northern Europe, not Asia. Check out Montessori schools or successful community and whole child approaches such as pioneered by Yale’s School Development Program.
Don’t believe the hype about how “rigorous” “new” standards will make our children more career ready. Wealthy industrialists and robber barons said the same thing back at the beginning of the last century, when they first started to put the factory model of institutionalized schooling and “selective” testing into place. It’s time to face the facts, this is a dysfunctional and mechanistic system. It’s way past time for all of us to move on to something far more innovative, democratic, compassionate and wise.
The Art of Learning
* Self-Direction is the Key to Mastery * Flow- The Psychology of Optimal Experience* Understanding How Our Brains Learn * Toward a More Creative & Holistic Model of Education * Real Learning is a Creative Process * Children Need to Be Free to Learn * How Wisdom Grows * It’s a Pink Floyd World – Welcome (Back) to the Machine *
“One of the most distressing characteristics of education reformers is that they are hyper-focused on how students perform, but they ignore how students learn.” ~Diane Marie
“Why would policymakers create tests that are designed to mark as failures two out of every three children? For the second year in a row, that is the question that New York parents are asking…” ~Carol Burris & Bianca Tanis
“Research from both within the United States and other countries suggest clearly that high stakes testing does more harm than good… We should completely abandon the idea of test-based accountability, that is, get high stakes standardized testing out of education, do not use it to evaluate schools or teachers. Second, we need to return autonomy to local schools and teachers. Let educators do their job and provide support. The government, both federal and state, should work on providing equal funding for schools and eradicate poverty, instead of interfering with teaching and learning, and adding bureaucratic burden on educators and students. Finally, we should invest in education innovations to encourage educators and local schools to seek creative ways to deliver an education for the future…” ~ Dr. Yong Zhao
“Teachers are anxious because 40 percent of their evaluations come from student scores on a combination of state and other standardized assessments. Ms. Berry is anxious because under New York City’s charter school rules, if they don’t demonstrate enough test score growth within each subgroup of minorities, English language learners, and learning disabled students, they’ll be closed in five years. Students pick up on their parents’ and teachers’ anxiety. Some stay home with stomachaches. Others stare into space or misbehave. “My mom worries about me a lot. So does my grandmother,” says Lucas, a liquid-eyed sixth grader carrying a fantasy novel with a dragon on the front. When I ask what he thinks of the test, he says, “It’s like a life-and-death situation. It decides whether you’ll get to another grade. If not, people will be disappointed with you.” ~Anya Kamenentz, We’re Testing Children on the Wrong Things
“What is education for? Is it for pouring facts and formulas into students’ heads, or is it for creating learners? Research shows that an environment that emphasizes evaluation and testing creates a fixed [achievement] mindset. That is, it sends the message that intellectual abilities are fixed and that the purpose of school is to measure them. Students come to see school as the place to look smart and, above all, not look dumb— not a place to create and learn.” ~Carol Dweck, Ph.D.
“Creating a society that goes against human nature is what creates the suffering… We live in a completely unnatural society, that actually tramples on what it means to be a human being. That’s the essence of suffering, and there are so many ways in which our society does that.” ~Dr Gabor Mate
“The purpose of the school is not just to raise test scores, or to give children academic learning. The purpose of the school is to give children an experience that will help them grow and develop in ways that they can be successful, in school and as successful adults. They have to grow in a way that they can take care of themselves, get an education, take care of a family, be responsible citizens of the society and of their community. Now you don’t get that simply by raising test scores.” ~Dr. James P. Comer; Comer School Development Program