In the US, mandatory standardized testing on the national level has primarily been put forth as a public policy strategy, with the aim of establishing stronger accountability measures for public education. Proponents of standardized testing say that it can help establish a baseline for improving schools and instructional methods. Critics cite a host of challenges with test validity, reliability and methodology – not to mention concerns about standardizing curricula.

But what has not been a credible part of the standardized testing debate in the US is the idea of making such a test a high-stakes, make-or-break determinant of students’ professional aptitude, college admissions, etc. Indeed, even the relevance of standardized college admission tests like the SAT and ACT can be seen as slowly on the wane these days, as more and more top schools evolve test-optional policies.

In stark contrast is the situation in China, where a national, government-administered, two-day exam called the gaokao pretty much entirely determines each student’s academic and professional future. For example:

  • Admission to colleges in China is based solely on the results of this brutal test
  • Wealthy, highly motivated students spend hours each day – for up to four years – prepping for the test.
  • Poor kids, knowing they can’t compete, simply go through school feeling hopeless, leading to depression, cheating and probably suicide.
  • High school curricula in China are focused entirely on supporting kids to do well on the gaokao, to the exclusion of virtually all other learning objectives.
  • The testing process is strongly biased towards students whose families can afford to pay for private test prep.
  • The wealthiest Chinese prefer to rescue their children from the gaokao entirely, by sending them abroad to college if at all possible.

Blogger Michael Levy, who has first-hand experience teaching in China, points out that even the gaokao’s strongest defenders acknowledge that the test – and the educational system that has evolved to support it – “robs Chinese students of their curiosity, creativity and childhood.” It has been argued that this kind of high-stakes testing damages kids, making it harder for them to thrive in an innovative economy.

Like many people, Levy is skeptical of the value of the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” competitive grants, arguing that this system distorts the curricula of underfunded schools by using standardized test results to determine how money is allocated. The danger of this approach is that America could end up with one all-powerful, high-stakes test like the gaokao.

I was interested to learn that China has a very long history of applying standardized examination systems, such as its imperial examination system. No doubt there are many reasons why these systems have worked in China. For example, today’s gaokao system is arguably the most efficient method possible for allocating China’s scare resources for higher education.

The US is facing an educational crisis that has at its heart scarce financial resources. Can high-stakes “bubble testing” really help improve educational standards and results in this country?

Please comment and let us know what you think.

Featured image courtesy of albertogp123.

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