In the last 13 years I’ve taught in a wide variety of environments and settings, including both indoor and outdoor schools, both mainstream and alternative schools, public and private schools, national and international schools, both day programs and formal grade schools. I’ve taught students from all walks of life, ranging from regular elementary to university to adult students, to people with disabilities, to parolees accompanied by their parole officers, to business leaders, and many more. As I’ve transitioned from one learning institution to another, the concept of high stakes assessments and their importance is one that I have mulled over for years. At this moment, I’d like to explore and compare high stakes testing in my own student experience to my two most recent teaching experiences in public Japanese schools, and at private international schools.
For someone like me who has test anxiety, any pop quiz feels like a high stakes test, making a “real” high stakes test seem like an uphill battle against the gods of Olympus. Having grown up in a variety of schools, I had my fair share entrance and exit exams, which by default meant I was plagued by sweaty hands and nauseous spells; while others studied, I fidgeted; while they read, I daydreamed; while my peers drilled their rote learning, I could barely manage to open my note cards. I even remember once in 4th grade trying to deliberately cut my hand to escape a test. I wish I were alone in this dilemma, but the reality is that countless students around the world abhor test time, and with good reason: the stress relating to such kind of tests has driven students all over the world to commit regretful acts of self-harm, with some even committing suicide (Kristine, 2011). While I never successfully harmed myself due to a test, the idea of high stakes tests never sat well with me.
While there may be some merit to high stakes testing, I honestly feel there is a limit to the madness surrounding them. Consider a country like the U.S.: according to Anya Kamenetz, author and education blogger, students in the U.S. are taking approximately 113 standardized tests between their K-12 years (Kamenetz, 2015). Even at this stage some educators, parents, and students from across the nation have long been denouncing high stakes testing, and organizations have brought forward alternatives to such practices with the intent of assessing student progress and learning e.g. MAP testing, PARCC testing, Smarter Balanced, et al. Comparatively, students in Japan are taking about 180 of these tests in only 6 years (elementary students don’t take standardized tests), and this number is excluding entrance and exit examinations (WebJapan, 2017). This means Japanese students are taking 63% more tests in only half of the time. Considering these numbers, it’s no wonder that high suicide rates amongst students are constantly reported in Japan and other Asian countries. It should also be noted that it is not of the students own will that they participate in this madness – parents and high admissions standards from institutions (on standardized tests) are constantly bearing down on students starting as young as 10 or 12 years old. In my own experience, I tutored a Japanese student at the start of their 6th grade who was trying to pass some extremely rigorous middle school entrance exams (middle school in Japan starts in grade 7). One day I noticed the student had some marks under the sleeve of their long-sleeve shirt, and after looking closely I noticed the student had several nail marks dug into their arm, all of them the size of their own small hand. As was my duty to notify the school counselor, we had to discuss with the student if their parents were aware of this, to which they answered that the mother was, but not the father. Sad as it was for me, there was nothing I could do as the student’s tutor to change the situation, beyond offer what little counseling I could. This kind of behavior and pressure is something that I am adamantly against, as I believe that children should be enjoying their youth, not self-inflicting wounds on their arms due to test-related stress.
Having taught in Japanese public schools for 5 years, I witnessed first-hand the drones of students swarming the libraries and private study companies during dinner hours. The educational system in Japan (and arguably, all of east Asia) is so geared towards test scores and results that it has created for itself a unique culture of over-stressed students who sleep through school in order to attend cram school in the evening hours. And to what cost? If we compare test scores alone, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA – an international organization that measures scholastic progress) reports that the U.S. is far below Japan in science, math and reading. In fact, Japan was ranked #2 amongst all assessed countries for average PISA scores in 2015, below only Singapore (OECD, 2016). On paper, this looks great, but again, at what cost? Is it really worth being at the top of a list if the youth of the country are killing themselves over a test? I’d like to believe that most sound people would say no to this, but the fact that the system hasn’t changed is, in my opinion, clear evidence that entire nations and their educational boards would rather look the other way than address what many believe to be a matter of international importance.
Completely switching to a different track, I compare all of this to my last two years spent teaching at a private international school. The school uses the IB programme and thus has a different approach to education. My school uses MAP testing as a measure of academic progress, and scores are reported to the organization, but are not counted towards a student’s grade – they are taken completely independent of any class, and students are assessed for math, reading, and language. I mention that scores are not counted towards grades because we emphasize this point to the students. We make sue they understand that the point of these 2 or 3 day tests is on order to measure their learning and growth, and should be given their best attempt without fear of failure. Like PARCC tests, MAP tests are also designed to highlight a student’s strength and weaknesses by providing questions on an online based platform, which get easier or harder depending on how well a student performs. In this way, no two tests are the same, and answers are a mix of multiple choice, short answers and information gaps which give students a better chance at succeeding.
The school does have some high stakes tests, either of their own creation or adopted (SATs, for example). While college prep tests are one-shot deals, the IB course is a more organic one, where students are assessed in various ways over the course of their last 2 years of school. In this way, a student’s IB portfolio is considered as a whole, and students have a chance to show their learning over time. I don’t necessarily believe that all high stakes tests should be discarded, but relying on them solely to measure any amount of learning is not only folly, it’s unreliable and leads to a narrow-minded take on education.
Students are not the only ones hurt by relying on high stakes tests to dictate the economic or social implications for a school. Naturally, teachers are also pressured to reach these so-called high standards, which in most cases translates to pressure on the students to perform. In the U.S., it is now common knowledge in the world of education that teachers have, in some places, been reduced to “teaching to the tests”, which comes down to rote learning and the regurgitation of information (Kamenetz, 2015). In Japan, things have been that way for years as well – to the point where many schools across the nation have instituted mandatory classes on Saturday. This means that teachers must also report to school on the weekend and impart lessons. Teachers are thus pressured by prefectural boards of education to raise their tests scores, especially if they teach at low-achieving schools; but the madness doesn’t stop there. Once the Saturday school program is adopted (it has to be “approved” by teachers – which means they are more often than not pressured by admin to do so), it is just as hard to dismantle it as it was to instate it. Technically that means that if the school improves their scores, administrators see it as a sign to continue the program, not discard it. Also, just like in the U.S., Japanese teachers are also partially judged according to the scores their students receive. The main difference is that teachers in Japan have a more secure job status as they are considered government workers and are transferred to another school district before being laid off or fired.
At my international school, the main tools for teacher evaluation are student surveys, followed by drop-ins from the admin staff, including the director for curriculum and principal. Student scores don’t usually factor into that decision unless there is a clear sign that something is wrong. I personally find this more appealing to both students and teachers as it allows for a specific level of freedom where teachers are able to focus on learning and giving realistic assessments that demonstrate such learning in real-world scenarios. Examples of this are that instead of doing standardized testing across the board, students have a plethora of assessments, from portfolios to project-based assessments, with some high stakes assessments mingled in. This combined with the MAP tests to gauge student growth over time foster a school environment where students and staff alike are able to enjoy the process of learning and keep the spark of education lit.
All in all, I still cringe at the one-shot, high stakes test that some of the students have to take, but the fact that they are scattered throughout the year makes me feel at ease. While I understand that every school will not adopt these practices overnight, I hope that educators will rely more and more on research instead of trends and buzzwords that benefit a select few. In fact, some educators claim that there is little to no research that proves that high stakes testing is more effective than other forms of assessments to increase student learning (Edutopia, 2010). I believe that at the core of our decision making process, we need to keep in mind the health and well-being of our children and how the lessons we impart on them will affect them later on in life.
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