America, Take a Lesson from China and Go and Test No More

Sarah Perry | November 21, 2014 | 1:32pm EST
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Earlier this week, Jeb Bush passionately defended Common Core in Washington D.C. at his Foundation’s annual education conference. While Bush remarked that testing is a critical component of Common Core, he noted that fewer tests should be administered to students overall.

The same day, CBS news gave us a profile of the ROADS Charter School in the Bronx where testing is producing anxiety for both teachers and students – students who are “uncommon” in their circumstances, and who have been failed by public education. They are students who have less experience in multi-hour exams, and who are desperate for the mastery of real-life skills over their repetitive and tiresome assessment. Melissa Giroux, the chair of the ROADS’ English department worried that “a taste of failure with [these] Common Core test[s] could bring back all of those old feelings and disengage them from school again.”

Part of Common Core’s clarion declaration, when presented to America with its attendant hope of economic prosperity, was the requirement of more testing. How can we know if we’re succeeding with these new standards, it was reasoned, if we don’t test students ad infinitum?

But while the most massive education reform in decades was ostensibly modeled on that of higher performing Asian countries, what looms on the horizon are not only predicted abysmal test scores and a critical interpretation of whether the SBAC and PARCC assessments will even be better than previous state exams, but a growing critique of the testing culture itself. If nothing else, there seems to be consensus that there is too much testing.

Too much testing, as in 113 standardized tests between pre-K and grade 12.

Yet, not all the nations from whom we were told this reform model stems test in the same manner as American schools do – either before or after Common Core. For example, Finland consistently scores near the top in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) for reading, mathematics and science, ranking third after Japan and Korea. However, children in Finland don’t start school until they are seven, and play constitutes a large portion of individual learning. What’s more, they take only one standardized exam in the entirety of their K-12 careers.

China comes closest to Common Core’s undue infatuation with national assessments, and consistently scores in the top five PISA rankings. But it does so to the detriment of its entire culture, as some have noted. Yong Zhao, presidential chair and professor in the Department of Educational Measurement, Policy and Leadership in the College of Education at the University of Oregon, wrote recently for CNN that China is a test-prep machine, and varies little from the imperial exam system of a century ago.

Homogeneity and obedience are, after all, hallmarks of a communist empire.

Has it benefited China’s subject scores? Certainly. Shanghai students have twice ranked number one on the PISA charts. Has it blighted the atmosphere of learning overall? Undoubtedly. So much so, in fact, that in light of wide-spread corruption intended to boost test scores, as well as the physical and emotional toll of testing on Chinese students, the Ministry of Education issued an order banning testing for grades one through three, and limiting testing in grades four and up. The order is just one of many educational reforms designed to reduce the emphasis on Chinese testing.

There exists no logic that punishing a child for poor performance on one test leads to a higher score on the next. Teaching to the tests makes only for a score, not a free-thinking student. Yong Zhao warns us so.  Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post agrees, reminding Common Core’s proponents that “Instead of reversing the mania for over-testing, the new assessments will extend it with pre-tests, interim tests, post-tests, and computer-based performance assessments.’ It’s the difference between giving a patient a blood test and draining the patient’s blood.”

Common Core is draining. It’s draining American wallets, draining parents of their chance to encourage the creativity and individual passions of their children. Most critically, it’s draining American students of their enthusiasm for learning.

Let us take a lesson from China, and go and test no more.

Sarah Perry is FRC's Senior Fellow, Common Core Coalition Manager, where she oversees research, education, and publications related to educational reform and the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Sarah is an attorney with a degree from the University of Virginia School of Law, where she was on the editorial board of the Virginia Journal of International Law.

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