Guest Column

Endangering Democracy With High-Stakes Testing

by Michael H. Romanowski

I recently taught in the department of education at a large Chinese university for a full academic year. During my time in mainland China, I visited several schools, observed classes, interacted with teachers and spent long hours discussing educational issues with Chinese colleagues and graduate students.

The experience gave me rare insight into the demands of China’s education system and the sort of students it produces. One of my Chinese students shared a story that best captured the consequences of high-stakes testing.

A teacher has four students in her classroom. One student is from Western Europe, one from Africa, one from China and one from the United States. She challenges the class with this assignment: They are to write their opinions about food shortages in another country. As they struggle with the assignment, each student raises a question with the teacher.

The student from Europe asks, “What is a shortage?” The African student inquires about the meaning of the word “food.” The American needs to know, “What is another country?” And the Chinese student is puzzled and asks the teacher to explain what an opinion is.

Spoonfed Students
The anecdote serves as an excellent example of how high-stakes testing affects students’ ability to think critically and creatively. More important, the tale sheds light on America’s embrace of high-stakes testing as the solution to educational achievement.

The idea that Chinese students lack the ability to develop an opinion is not that far-fetched. Chinese students do not like to work with what is often termed the “messiness” of creativity or problem solving. They depend on teachers to provide the correct answer, and are only concerned with learning knowledge for their exams.

High-stakes testing has an impact on the future economic and social status of students. Failure to pass the China’s college-entrance examination denies a student university admission, limiting future employment to lowly status and low-paying jobs. One can easily see how testing turns Chinese students into study machines who can memorize incredible amounts of information and are excellent at preparing for exams but who lack experience with thinking critically, articulating their opinions or engaging in creative activities.

Although factors such as the political climate hamper critical thinking in China, one significant reason for the lack of attention to critical thinking skills is the way teachers deliver instruction. Chinese teaching is reduced to what is termed by Chinese educators as “duck stuffing” because of the lifeless way students are filled with information. Teachers stuff students’ heads with knowledge so they can regurgitate the same and secure a passing score on the comprehensive examinations. Over time Chinese students develop thinking without substance.

One of my Chinese students summed this concern up well: “We (the Chinese) often reflect about why we can do so well on exams but cannot win Nobel Prizes. … It is a tragedy such a large population and so little creative thought.”

American education is not immune to the pitfalls of the Chinese system. When test scores become the dominant focus of attention in schools, teachers begin to drill their students on test items. Teaching strategies that promote in-depth understanding are set aside, and knowledge that is not tested is ignored. The end result is that students are shortchanged in developing thinking skills such as analyzing, synthesizing, performing, articulating and other active modes of in-depth learning. Is it possible we are moving closer to the Chinese duck-stuffing model and will face similar consequences?

American schools are beginning to mirror other aspects of the Chinese system. Chinese key schools (the top-flight schools) are identified exclusively in terms of passing exam scores and college placement of students. Chinese teachers’ salaries are directly linked to their students’ performance on tests, and the pressure for students to perform well on exams eliminates other important subjects. This may sound familiar to anyone concerned about the current educational climate in the United States.

Societal Threats
The author C.S. Lewis once told a fable about a country that removed the teaching of mathematics from schools because of an overloaded curriculum.

All went well for several years. Then shopkeepers complained their employees couldn’t perform basic math skills and kept billing customers incorrectly. Passengers on public transportation became angry because ticket collectors were continually shortchanging them. Politicians became furious because citizens could not properly fill out their income taxes. But still, few thought to consider that mathematics was no longer in the curriculum.

Although Lewis wrote this parable as a comment about the failure to teach religion, the significant point is that when schools fail to teach key skills and content, society suffers. Likewise when schools focus on test scores and fail to develop students’ independent minds and critical thinking skills, they endanger the survival of a democracy because a democracy is only as strong as its citizens are capable of thinking freely and creatively.

Michael Romanowski is a professor of education at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio. E-mail: m-romanowski@onu.edu