Usually, when the case is made that other countries are somehow doing a better job than the US in education, the argument is based on test scores, but it is unclear what exactly is being evaluated when we compare these scores. The skills and knowledge base that can be measured accurately by a standardized test are usually the material that is easiest to teach: true-false or multiple choice questions about factual statements. I call this the trivia quiz model of assessment. Unfortunately, these tests not only have no way to measure whether or not a student retains any of the simple factual information it claims to assess, but standardized tests also cannot indicate whether the student has integrated the information into any kind of broader understanding or if the student can use the information in a practical way. Bottom line: There are more effective methods that the education system should employ to assess a student’s progress.
For example, where I went to school, at St. John’s College, all of our classes were small seminars of about 12 students where the material was discussed and debated by the students with the professor acting as a guide facilitating the discussion. In a small class, there is no place to hide. It becomes painfully evident if a student has not prepared for class, and over time it is also apparent which students can integrate new material with the broader body of knowledge the class has covered in the past. No test is necessary for this to become quite clear. But, more importantly, no test really could assess this style of learning. In any discipline or course of study, there are a variety of approaches to and perspectives on the material, and any number of opinions may be acceptable provided they are supported by reasonable premises, evidence, textual support, and logical thinking. This is what is required for productive discussion, and it’s simply impossible to devise a standardized test to evaluate a student’s ability to do this. What’s more, no standardized test can assess a student’s ability to navigate a complex climate of opinion, nor can tests measure when knowledge has been synthesized into a broader context.
“... The testing culture of the school system is a self-reinforcing feedback loop that rewards oversimplification and punishes critical and creative thought.”
When I was a public school teacher it was common to see a teacher present a set of facts as simple truths when in fact they merely represent one perspective out of a controversial spectrum of opinions. This is not necessarily the fault of the teachers either. If a teacher tries to teach complex ambiguities or convey the complex dynamics of a disputed topic students quickly become anxious and impatient. “Will this be on the test?” or “What do I need to know to get an A?” and “What is the right answer?” are the typical questions students ask immediately. It is obvious why these are their first thoughts, they are consumed with anxiety about test outcomes, and they have been rigorously trained to believe that tests are the only index of academic and intellectual success. In response, teachers simplify curriculum to a list of plausible factoids and true-false assertions. If teachers fail to do this, students believe teachers are being willfully obscure and grossly unfair for presenting them with thoughts and ideas that confuse the test preparation process, which they think of as “study.” This style of education actually discourages the asking of pertinent questions and implies that critical thinking is burdensome, irrelevant, and unproductive because questioning and critical thinking do not help a student to correctly answer test questions.
This situation is absolutely corrosive to actual learning because the testing culture of the school system is a self-reinforcing feedback loop that rewards oversimplification and punishes critical and creative thought. This is especially true of the humanities, but it applies in science and mathematics as well. Yes, it is true that there are many important facts that are not in dispute and should be taught as such, but it is precisely my point that these are the easiest parts of any discipline to teach and test, which leaves out contextual integration of the material and critical thinking skills. Test-based teaching, therefore, avoids ambiguous and uncertain issues, which is exactly where the most important learning and complex thinking is to be done. As with so many aspects of our common culture, we often emphasize trivia at the expense of substance.
The truth is, learning, insight, intellectual development are not quantifiable. These traits can certainly be assessed, but they cannot be measured. The implicit assumption behind comparing the average test scores of different children, schools, or countries is that education can be a kind of competition, that we can apply statistics to it like we do in professional sports. In reality, this is completely misguided, there are no creative or intellectual batting averages, and by redesigning our educational system to produce data we actually abandon education and replace it with a kind of international quiz show competition, which generates a great deal of sound and fury but signifies absolutely nothing.