Does the U.S. Want what China Wants to Throw Away: The Role of Testing in Two National Education Reform Plans
In front of me are two documents that could significantly affect the future of the world. I am not exaggerating because these two documents are plans to overhaul education in two of the most powerful nations in the world: China and the United States. If the plans are executed as intended and outcomes achieved as expected, the future will see China moving closer to being a center of innovation and the US? – a nation of test-takers, like China today.
China released the second draft of Guidelines for Mid and Long-Range Education Reform and Development Plan (2010-2020) at the end of February, 2010 to solicit public comments. A couple of weeks later, the United States released A Blueprint for Reform: The Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which also uses 2020 as the target year.
While both plans are a continuation of reform efforts that had been undergoing for a while, they propose some thing much more serious for the next round. In other words, the two plans now are pushing exactly the “right button” to generate systemic and long lasting changes.
The “button” is the criteria and means to judge the quality of education. Every society uses some way to measure the quality of education its schools and teachers provide and reward or punish them with tangible (e.g., money) and or intangible (e.g., recognition) consequences. What and how education is measured often drive educational practices in schools and classrooms, which in turn affect the ultimate outcome of education: the qualities of talents a society gets.
In China, gaokao, or the College Entrance Exam, has been used as a primary indicator of the quality of education for several decades. Although it takes place only at the end of basic education, it drives educational practices from kindergarten on. Technically the gaokao assesses only individual students and does not explicitly or directly assess teachers and schools, but because it practically determines whether a student can get into college and then a better life, it is the summative evaluation of schools. In other words, how well schools and teachers prepare their students to take the gaokao has been accepted as the primary indicator of the quality of education they provide.
Therefore, in China, high schools are judged based on the proportion of their students admitted to colleges. High schools with more students doing well on the gaokao are considered better schools and are rewarded with more funds, better reputation, and attract more students. Their principals and teachers are considered celebrities and better compensated. Similarly, middle schools that have more graduates moving into these high schools are considered better, and elementary schools that send more students into better middle schools are viewed as better schools.
Thus, although China never had a national education quality assessment program, the gaokao has been the de facto measure of educational quality. Since the education system revolves around getting good scores on the gaokao, the Chinese government has termed its education systems “test-oriented,” a system viewed incompatible with China’s determination to transform into an innovation-based economy because the “test-oriented” education results in citizens who maybe good test takers, but nothing else. In addition, the gaokao only tests knowledge in a few subjects (primarily math, Chinese language, and English, plus some other subjects depending on which province one resides in), it seriously discriminates against students with abilities and talents outside these tested subjects, who have little chance of success in their education career.
To fulfill its desire to become an “innovation-based” economy, China needs a diversity of creative and innovative talents.
China has fully recognized the damages of the gaokao and has been working on curriculum and pedagogical reforms in order to mitigate the negative consequences of gaokao. It has also been trying to reform the gaokao. But until now it has not touched the root cause on a national scale (for more discussion about education reforms in China and the problems of gaokao, pls. read my recent book Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization).
In this new reform plan, China seems be much more determined to make significant changes to the gaokao in a number of ways. First, grant universities more autonomy in deciding how they wish to admit students, thus possibly diversifying admissions criteria and procedure. Second, allow students to take the gaokao multiple times and turn it into more like the SAT or ACT. Third, make scores on the gaokao only one of the elements in admissions decisions. Fourth, encourage schools to recommend students with special talents to universities. These measures have been piloted in China on smaller scale in different provinces. The plan is to implement them across the system.
To further reduce the negative impact of gaokao, the plan specifically forbids the use of percentage of graduates admitted to colleges to evaluate teachers and schools by local authorities.
In contrast, the Blueprint for the reauthorization of ESEA in the U.S. pushes to another extreme. Despite all the language about innovation and flexibility, the true leverage the federal government wishes to use is test scores in a few subjects on a national scale. “Common standards” in math and language arts are to become a mandate for all states. To implement these standards, common assessment is called for. One can well expect that once common assessments in these two subjects are in place, schools and teachers will be evaluated based on their students’ performance on these tests. Then accountability measures follow. Soon, the US will have a system like China’s gaokao.
The gaokao has not produced citizens China wants in the 21st century. I doubt it will do wonders for the United States.