We argue about testing in the US, but the focus on and stakes related to testing is much higher in China and India where the tip of the human funnel is the 12th grade exam; to a large life options hang in the balance. In the US, there are lots of options and second chances; not so in India and China. As a result, the singular secondary focus is marks leading to success on the exit exam.
Yesterday, I visited an expensive private school in Hyderabad. The International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program looked familiar and rich. I dropped in on a primary teacher staff meeting that was informed by student work.
However, it was a different picture in the middle grades where the school abandoned IB for the Cambridge curriculum. Students sat in rows quietly plowing through workbooks while teachers sat at their desk. It was among the most stifling middle grade programs I’ve ever seen.
Parents aren’t oblivious to the boredom. The school included nearly a third non-resident Indians back in country for a stint at Microsoft or Oracle. We met girls from Detroit, DC, and Denver. The Head of School spoke to the constant ‘rigor v relevance’ dilemma, but said test scores easily tipped the scale.
Ted Sizer was the first Head of School that I met that espoused the ‘test scores will take care of themselves’ philosophy—and ran school good enough to prove it. Larry Rosenstock at High Tech High has also proven this point, but it’s interesting to note that HTH now has an SAT prep focused math program.
Test scores have gravity. When high stakes are applied, it’s hard not to resort to a test-prep curriculum. It takes confident and skilled instructional leadership to focus on a few important learning goals and, as Sizer would say, ‘let test scores take care of themselves.’ I remain committed to the idea that we can build rich instructional systems around fewer, clearer, higher standards—systems that incorporate content-embedded assessment (e.g., score from a learning game), performance assessment (e.g., essays and projects), adaptive assessment (e.g., quick online quizzes), as well as summative assessment—that promote rather than detract from engaging personalized learning experiences. The next few months will be an important turning point in many of the United States; assessment will either get better or we’ll lock in another generation of bad tests will bad results. It will take confident and skilled instructional and political leadership to make a turn for the better.