Testing Season

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a full-day workshop at Teachers College at Columbia University.  Diane Ravitch delivered the key note address in front of a packed audience of educators at the Riverside Church.  Ravitch dispelled certain misconceptions about public education.  One of the myths perpetuated by reformers and policy-makers is that our schools are failing.  Ravitch points out in her most recent book, Reign of Error that students, on the whole, are actually performing better than ever before:

“NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] data show beyond question that test scores in reading and math have improved for almost every group of students over the past two decades; slowly and steadily in the case of reading, dramatically in the case of mathematics.  Students know more and can do more in these two basic skills subjects now than they could twenty or forty years ago… So the next time you hear someone say that the system is ‘broken,’ that American students aren’t as well educated as they used to be, that our schools are failing, tell that person the facts.”

Student performance on the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) has been used by federal, state, and local policy-makers as the central concern for “reforming” education since our students must compete in a global economy and workforce.  Average or low student performance is seen as a reason to be concerned by these reformers.  However, when one considers the effect of poverty on test scores, a different reality is presented.  Poverty in U.S. public schools is measured by the free and reduced lunch rate.  Those schools in the U.S. with a free and reduced lunch rate of less than 10 percent are the top performing schools in the world.  In fact, when the school free and reduced lunch rate is less than 25 percent, only one nation’s schools perform better than the U.S.—Finland.  On the other hand, those schools in the U.S. with a free and reduced lunch rate of more than 50 percent are some of the worst performing schools on the PISA assessment.


pisa and poverty

Obviously, there is work to be done, and improvements must be made, especially for our poorest children.  The U.S. not only has the most inequitable rate of wealth and income distribution among western developed nations, but the U.S. also has the highest child poverty rate of those nations participating in the PISA assessment.  In New York State, the child poverty rate is 23 percent.  We must do better.  Policies must be enacted that address and meet this social problem of childhood poverty and poor educational opportunities for our poorest students.  Unfortunately, the path policymakers have decided to follow is the panacea called the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  Somehow, the CCSS will improve U.S. student performance on standardized assessments as the PISA and NAPE.  Without any research demonstrating actual improved educational outcomes, 45 states adopted the CCSS.  The stimulus money offered by the federal government to the states (Race to the Top) persuaded cash-strapped states to take the federal money in return for adopting the CCSS, along with standardized testing in grades 3-12.

So, as public schools throughout the nation begin a period of testing (first for elementary and middle schools students and after for high school students), I researched what testing is presently occurring in Finland, which is one of the top performing nations on the PISA assessment.  Recently, Pasi Sahlberg, former director general at the Finland’s Ministry of Education, described Finland’s exams in a Washington Post article.  He states that: “Students are regularly asked to show their ability to cope with issues related to evolution, losing a job, dieting, political issues, violence, war, ethics in sports, junk food, sex, drugs, and popular music. Such issues span across subject areas and often require multi-disciplinary knowledge and skills.”  Some sample essay topics include:

  • “Some politicians, athletes and other celebrities have publicly regretted and apologized for what they have said or done. Discuss the meaning of the apology and accepting it as a social and personal act.”
  • “Has your body become your hobby?”
  • “Media is competing for audiences – what are the consequences?”
  • “Choose three world religions and compare the role and use of a holy image within them.”

The National Matriculation Exam is the only exam required for students in Finland to graduate high school and enter college.  That’s it.  There is no 3-12 school-wide testing.  There are no multiple choice questions.  This exam stands in stark contrast to the type of multiple-choice, machine-scorable exams that are not even written by educators here in the U.S.  A film about the Finnish educational, a film about the Finnish educational, The Finland Phenomenon, describes in detail the highlights of this educational system.  Below is trailer to this film:

The entire film can be viewed below:

The Finnish and U.S. system of examinations are at polar opposites with the former relying on one matriculation exam with separate open-ended questions, while the latter relies on examinations largely composed of closed-ended questions in every grade level from 3-12.  The decisions about how to test, who to test, and what to test vary nation by nation as seen in this example.  Ultimately, the question that must be asked and answered is if the recent educational reform that places more emphasis on outputs and results rather than on processes will improve educational opportunities for all of our students.