Amanda Ripley

Nav

← Back to Posts

Dirty Secrets about Tests around the World

14th Jul 2011 posted in Education

If I were shipwrecked on a desert island, you know what I would bring with me? Seriously, I would take all 5 volumes of the latest PISA results to a desert island and just read them. OK, so I would need food, water and an occasional cocktail. But I swear to God, every time I open up one of those reports I find something fascinating. I get distracted for an hour and then go back to what I was doing, wondering what else is in there that I don’t know about.

Consider Table IV.3.10 of Vol. IV. (I am not making this up! It’s like they actually don’t want us to read the report. We should make classified documents this hard to decipher; wikileaks would go out of business.)

Anyway, despite all the problems with testing, and I agree there are many, here is what principals in top-performing countries report about their use of standardized tests:

FINLAND: 96% of students are in schools that do standardized testing 1-5 times a year. (2% are in schools that do testing at least once per month.)

SOUTH KOREA: 97% of students are in schools that do standardized testing 1-5 times a year. (1% are in schools that do testing at least once per month.)

Here are the comparable numbers for the U.S.:

UNITED STATES: 95% of students are in schools that do standardized testing 1-5 times a year. (2% are in schools that do testing at least once per month.)

So what does this mean? That standardized tests correlate with high performance? No, they do not. It depends on the test—and a million other things. (It does mean that Diane Ravitch needs a new argument against testing.)

PISA Vol. IV also concludes that the regular use of standardized tests does correlate with equity in schools.

To be clear: Schools that use standardized tests regularly tend to have less disparity in outcomes based on income.

So in a country with devastating disparities in educational outcomes, we should probably pay attention to this paragraph before we do away with tests:

One explanation for the positive association between the prevalence of standardised tests and improved equity in school systems is that such tests provide schools with instruments to compare themselves with other schools. This, in turn, allows schools to observe the inequities among schools, which could be considered the first step towards redressing them. The results from PISA also show higher levels of socioeconomic equity in school systems that use achievement data to make decisions about the curriculum and track achievement data over time.

If you are enough of a nerd to want to join me on the desert island, Volume IV can be found here. I’ll bring the tequila.