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Do We Need to Ditch High-Stakes Testing to Compete with China?

Forget memorization and do-or-die, high-stakes testing. China's ditching those old schooling methods. Just as we're using them more than ever.

At a time when international test results—like last year's PISA data—seem to indicate that American students are falling behind their Chinese counterparts, we're feeling the pressure to adopt a stereotypically Chinese method of educating kids: lots of rote memorization of facts and hardcore standardized testing. But in a recent interview with Education News, Minxuan Zhang, the Director-General of the Center for International Education Studies, Ministry of Education, China, and National Project Manager of PISA, says that the Chinese vision of education no longer includes those kinds of rigid practices. Instead, China's moving away from rote learning.


Zhang acknowledges that there's a long history of high-stakes exams in China's education system. "Old China" had a tradition of selecting the best students depending on test results, and 5,000 years of culture isn't exactly going to disappear overnight. But she calls testing "an oversimplified way to check educational results" and she doesn't believe emphasizing them improves education because tests come at the end of the school experience. She says,

"If we want to build a good system, we cannot only rely on testing at the end of learning. Testing implies that the student has finished the educational system. The most important thing is not just to see the testing results, but to pay close attention to the educational process. The process of education is much more important than the testing."

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That's remarkably different from the direction the United States is heading. We're focused on using test results to evaluate students, schools, and teachers alike. And, to do better on tests, we've spent the time since No Child Left Behind was enacted narrowing our educational focus to concentrate on reading and math. But, says Zhang, that's the opposite of China's current thinking since

Education is not just about knowledge. It is also the process of socialization of the individual. There are other important elements such as social responsibility, personal potential in arts and the fine arts, how a student handles himself in relationships with other people, how students handle their work. Those kinds of skills and capacities are very important, sometimes even more important than subject testing.

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Interestingly, Zhang also shared that Chinese education officials are thinking about how they can "lessen the learning burden" on students. In order to counter the emotional stress students feel, they're trying to get schools to send the message that high school shouldn't be the most important time in a student's life. Of course, this doesn't mean that grades aren't important, but instead of burning students out in a high-stakes pressure cooker environment, China's looking for ways to "keep student's interest in learning" throughout their lifetimes.

We want to be economically competitive with the Chinese, but while they're actually pursuing new innovations in education, why are we moving toward the "Old China" methods they're discarding?

photo (cc) via Flickr user Rex Pe

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