To the Editor:
Alfonso Orsini’s reflections on his year of teaching in China (“Big Tests, Big Sticks,” Commentary, July 13, 2005) reminded me of a major concern I have had about the effects of high-stakes testing. This concern springs from my periodic involvement in and observation of the education system in Thailand over the past 40 years.
While the Thai system claims to have undergone reform periodically, not much of consequence has changed, particularly in the teaching of English. Why? Because of barriers resulting from the university entrance exam.
Thai educators with whom I’ve worked have wished they were free to revolutionize the teaching of English (no doubt teachers of science and social studies would agree), but have said that would never happen as long as the university exam is in place.
My concern, then, is how high-stakes testing becomes the end that determines the means and leads to the calcification of the latter. High-stakes testing makes it extremely unlikely that a system will become more productive and provide a more genuinely enlightened education. It certainly assures that the socioeconomic conditions of a community will be reflected in the results of its schools’ testing, an effect seen worldwide.
Some experts have questioned the value of the SAT in this country as a screener of the best and brightest, recognizing bias and the obvious advantage to those with the means to take test-prep courses. High-stakes tests that determine high school graduation are even more onerous, and more likely to be affected by the socioeconomic baggage of test-takers.
High-stakes testing—with all its vested interests, cost, and focus on lower-level understanding—militates mightily against the kinds of changes that will come much closer to preparing American students to make great contributions to the future of our country.
A version of this article appeared in the August 10, 2005 edition of Education Week as Evidence From the East On Testing’s Damage