Other countries master standardized testing… they don’t have it

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Sophia Wang

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For most high school students, the struggle of staying up into the early hours of the morning and burying themselves under a pile of notes to study for the three tests the next day is a familiar one. Often, after a few weeks or months, the information they were supposed to have learned disappears into the deep recesses of their brains, or just leaves altogether. It isn’t the tests themselves that are the real problem, but instead the common trap of making the curriculum focus purely on test content and forgetting the sole concept of helping students learn.

Test taking is supposed to be used as a tool to determine students’ progress and provide useful feedback for teachers on their level of understanding of the material being taught. Many teachers do use it in this way, however, when class starts to focus in on the purely numerical data that comes with endless test-taking instead of considering how to get students to achieve a deeper understanding of the subject that goes beyond tests, the connection that the student has with the material is lost. Students find themselves either drowning in a sea of test scores or skimming the surface by focusing on their skills in taking the test instead of relying on the understanding they’ve gained.

Though finding ways to solve this problem isn’t as simple as it seems, there are many examples of successful education systems around the world. 

Finland’s school system is one example of this. With less emphasis on meeting strict standards and test score benchmarks and instead utilizing a more flexible curriculum that considers each student as a whole, students are defined by more than their test scores. It’s easy to assume that this relative “lack” of structure would mean decreased success in international tests that measure levels of student achievement across countries in different subjects. However, when you examine America’s test scores, they are noticeably lower than Finland’s, and in some cases even dip below the international average in areas like mathematics. These results seem counterintuitive. Why isn’t the emphasis on test taking being reflected in these results, with Finland (and numerous other countries) ranking higher than the United States across all subjects?

The answers could relate to how much students are really learning the material and understanding the subject, as well as the different structures the Finnish government has implemented to ensure quality of education. There is an emphasis on building trust and cooperation between schools to establish an effective curriculum that leaves room for flexibility, and these beliefs are equally important in the relationship between student and teacher.  

The core values of Finland’s education system also highlight the drawbacks of defining students solely by their test scores, encouraging a curriculum with increased diversity and flexibility in terms of student choice and educational paths. The American education system has lots of room to improve, and the extensive focus on learning the test material isn’t giving favorable outcomes in the long run.