Final Exams

February 01, 1996 4 min read

To be admitted to a university in England, secondary school students in that country have to pass an eight-hour-long test in chemistry. But in Japan, the entrance exam in chemistry for prestigious Tokyo University lasts only two and a half hours. And the United States’ Advanced Placement exam in chemistry, unlike both the other two countries’, asks almost no questions about organic chemistry--the specialty of almost half the field’s practitioners.

That is the kind of variation researchers found when they compared the end-of-secondary-school mathematics and science tests that college-bound students take in seven industrialized countries. Their findings are the subject of a new report from the Washington-based National Center for Improving Science Education.

The Third International Mathematics and Science Study, a 50-nation project currently in the works, is comparing and analyzing textbooks and curricular guidelines for schools around the world. But few, if any, studies have analyzed subject-matter tests for clues on what nations expect their best students to know when they graduate. “A lot of us felt tests are what’s really influential,’' says Senta Raizen, director of NCISE, which obtained a grant from the National Science Foundation for the project.

As part of the study, researchers pored over 5,000 questions in 77 examinations in chemistry, biology, physics, and mathematics from England and Wales, France, Germany, Israel, Japan, Sweden, and the United States.

Students in most of those countries must pass a battery of examinations in several subjects to gain university admittance. Because similar kinds of tests are not required here, researchers used the College Board’s Advanced Placement examinations as a basis for comparison. Students take those tests to earn college credit for advanced course work in high school.

The researchers found that, despite some commonalities, the exams differed widely from country to country in terms of topics covered, difficulty of the questions, format, length, and the degree to which students were given choices in answering test items. One of the more striking findings they made, however, was that the U.S. chemistry exams, unlike those from the other countries, asked few questions about biochemistry, organic chemistry, and industrial chemistry. The tests instead emphasized more foundational physical chemistry topics. “I really think the bottom line is that students in other countries end up spending a lot more time with chemistry than we do,’' says Dwaine Eubanks, a Clemson University chemistry professor who conducted that part of the analysis.

All of the tests, except for those from France and Germany, included a mix of multiple-choice questions and more difficult open-ended items. However, the U.S. Advanced Placement tests, with more than half the testing time given over to multiple-choice items, had the largest proportion of such questions.

Most of the exams--those from England and Wales and Israel being the exception--lacked the kinds of laboratory experiences called for by science education reformers in this country. Since these high-stakes tests influence what is taught in schools, this omission, Edward Britton, the center’s assistant director, says, “is sending a signal to teachers that it’s really of no consequence to them if they don’t do hands-on science in the classroom.’'

Similarly, the mathematics exams in all of the participating countries drew almost no connections between abstract mathematics and real-world problem solving. John Dossey, the Illinois State University mathematics professor who wrote that part of the study, reports that the U.S. math exams were the “easiest’’ of the lot. “But this characterization matches the intent of the exam,’' he writes. While Japan’s exams are intended to weed out the most promising students, the U.S. exams are meant to ensure that students have grasped minimal concepts.

Overall, the researchers stopped short of characterizing any nation’s tests as easier or harder than the rest. “You can’t make that judgment when you don’t know what surrounds the test,’' Raizen says. “The French exams have fewer questions requiring lengthier responses, and it looks like they’re testing more in-depth knowledge. However, we don’t know whether French students know they will be tested in two of five topics or what they know about what will be on the test or how much coaching has been going on.’'

Together with the American Federation of Teachers, the center will publish a set of the examinations later this year to allow readers to compare for themselves. Soft-cover copies of the current report, Examining the Examinations: An International Comparison of Science and Mathematics Examinations for College-Bound Students, are available for $32.95 from: The NETWORK Inc., 300 Brickstone Square, Suite 900, Andover, MA 01810; (508) 470-1080.

--Debra Viadero

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Final Exams