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National Tests in Other Countries Not as Prevalent as Thought

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A new analysis challenges the widely held assumption that the United States is the only major industrialized country without a national student-testing system.

The study, published this month in the journal Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, is one of a growing number of studies in recent years to take a closer look at other nations' education systems. It examines testing practices in four European countries--Britain, France, Germany, and Sweden--and in two Asian countries, China and Japan.

In all of those countries, write the study's authors, Michael J. Feuer and Kathleen Fulton, student-examination systems are in transition. But, contrary to what proponents of national-testing programs in this country often claim, standardized examinations for students younger than 16 have all but disappeared from European nations.

Moreover, in all six countries studied, existing testing systems vary widely. Some consist of multiple-choice questions, while others, such as Germany's Abitur, use oral examinations, demonstrations, and essays. Some are used as "gatekeepers''--governing admissions to university-level study--while others, such as Sweden's, were developed to provide feedback to teachers.

"One really has to look fairly closely and in fairly fine detail when comparing examination systems of different countries,'' said Mr. Feuer, who is the director of the National Academy of Sciences' Board on Testing and Assessment. Ms. Fulton is a senior analyst and project director for the Congress's Office of Technology Assessment, which conducted the original study. Their journal report was adapted from that investigation.

France, for example, has often been identified with rigid central control of schools. But there are now many versions of the famed French Baccalaureat exams, including some that are vocational and technical. Although the central government oversees those tests, they are administered locally. Regional committees select questions from centrally provided lists, and teachers have a say in the setting of grading standards.

Passports to College

Moreover, France, like some of the other countries studied, has taken steps over the years to emulate the United States by making its system more egalitarian. In 1955, only 5.5 percent of French students passed the Baccalaureat and qualified for university-level studies; now, 46 percent of students pass.

That same reasoning, Mr. Feuer said, has led to the abolition of standardized examinations for students younger than 16 in many of the countries studied.

But, unlike the United States, most other countries still use their examinations to determine who is admitted to universities. None uses tests to gauge the quality of its schools, which the United States attempts to do with the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federally mandated assessment administered periodically to national samples of students in grades 4, 8, and 12.

But the authors contend that other nations are beginning to show interest in such an assessment.

Different Roles, Different Tests

Another finding, the researchers note, is that teachers play a large role in developing, administering, and scoring tests in most of the countries studied.

That is in part because those nations have relatively few teacher education institutes. Thus, Mr. Feuer said, "there is greater consensus regarding principles of pedagogy.''

The authors also make the point that testing alone will not necessarily raise students' academic performance.

They note that France and Japan--two nations that typically rank high on international comparisons of student achievement--use different forms of tests. France's examinations are essay-based, while the Japanese use multiple-choice tests.

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