The Glossary of Education Reform defines High Stakes Testings as, “any test used to make important decisions about students, educators, schools, or districts, most commonly for the purpose of accountability” (2014, para. 1). High stakes tests can be found in many forms through-out the worlds many Educations systems. For this blog I will compare and contrast the high stake testing environments in two countries, the USA and Japan. First, I will explore the general situation of high stakes testing in the USA and Japan and then I will go on to talk about how high stakes testing manifests in the teaching practices of both countries.
GENERAL STATE OF HIGH STAKES TESTING
In the USA the enactment of the No Child Left Behind [NCLB] amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act [ESEA] in 2002, and most noticeably in it’s 2009 iteration, made states accountable for the scores of their students, all of them, including the typically under-reported scores of disadvantaged students and English language learners [ELLs]. The accountability took the direct form of financial funding which made the results of high stakes testing very high indeed. The enactment of NCLB lead to an explosion of standardized testing in USA schools. A study of 14 school districts conducted by the Center for American Progress found students in grades 3–8 taking an average of 10 and as many as 20 standardized tests per year (Lazarín, 2014, in Hofman, Goodwin and Kahl, 2015, p. 2). The backlash of this high stakes testing environment has resulted in both parental and educator opposition to the battery of standardized tests students have to undergo. Parental advocacy groups such as, United Opt Out National, organize and educate parents with the goal to:
“[serve] as a focused point of unyielding resistance to corporate education reform. We demand an equitably funded, democratically based, anti-racist, desegregated public school system for all Americans that prepares students to exercise compassionate and critical decision making with civic virtue” (n.d.).
In response to the criticisms of NCLB the USA Department of Education [DOE] replaced the NCLB with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) on December 10th, 2015. The ESSA is an attempt to address the failings of NCLB, which were its overly heavy focus on standardized testing results and lack of flexibility. Initial educator and parental response to ESSA has generally been positive, however, states are just beginning to revise their accountability plans and receive DOE feedback so I believe it is much to early to tell if ESSA will alter the high stakes testing environment in the USA.
In Japan there is high stakes testing as well, but when compared to the USA it is of a different nature. Gardner describes the education environment in Japan as, “built on cutthroat competition and high-stakes testing” (2014, para. 3). And while Japan’s ongoing high rankings on the PISA test certainly point at an achieving education system, voices demanding reform have been heard since Japan’s economic decline began in the 1990s. The major criticism being that, “Japan’s schools are inordinately test-oriented at the expense of student creativity. In the new global economy, this has proved to be a decided liability” (Gardner, para. 6). This test-centric educational philosophy culminates in Japan with annual entrance exams. For Japanese students success in life it equated with which universities they enter, which is decided by whether or not they pace the entrance exam. In Cordilia’s interviews of Japanese university students, the students often described their education as a railroad:
One cannot for example, easily take time off between high school and college (except in order to do an intense period of study for the entrance examinations). If a student takes time off to work for a few years, (s)he will find it difficult to pass the entrance exams later, since (s)he will have forgotten much of the relevant material (s)he crammed in high school. (1989, p. 5-6)
From Cordilia’s study we can see the importance that these high stakes entrance exams have on student life. They are in fact so definitive that failure of the exams often lead students to commit extreme acts, such as suicide. In contrast to the USA, Japan’s testing climate is not government driven. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology [MEXT] in Japan does not rank schools, nor require across the board standardized testing. Cummings states that, “in Japan, in most cases testing is carried out on a sample of students (whose identities are carefully protected), and researchers are not [End Page 228] allowed to link these individual scores to particular schools or classrooms” (2017). In Japan public school resources are not allocated by test score. All the pressure of testing in Japanese school’s come from the fact that a student’s success or failure on an entrance exam is likely to influence that student’s financial future for the rest of their life.
Similar to the USA, the [MEXT] is advocating education reform. MEXT in their Second Basic Plan for the Promotion of Education, outlines education reform to move away from the exam-driven pedagogy that has been in place since the 1950s saying, “What is truly needed in Japan is independent-minded learning by individuals in order to realize independence, collaboration and creativity” (2013). Although enacted over four years ago this plan has not yet materialized in the Japanese education system, that I have been exposed to at least, and the mainstay of direct instruction and content based testing is the norm.
IN THE CLASSROOM: HOW HIGH STAKES TESTING INFLUENCES USA AND JAPANESE TEACHING
In this section I will explore my observations and experience of how high stakes testing philosophy has manifested in the school where I currently work, Tamagawa Academy Middle School (5-8) [玉川学園中学部]. Additionally, I will compare my experience to the American model as well. Unfortunately, as I have no direct experience in any American schools so I will be relying on information that I collected from an American teacher, working at a private Hawaiian school (K-8), that I started working with this year for our two schools’ mutual exchange program. I will start off with my observations of teaching practices here in Japan and then will finish with a comparison of American practices.
I have been teaching ESL in a Japanese middle school for five years, four years as a grade five teacher and this year as a grade 8 teacher. After only a year working here it became quite apparent to me that the “test” was everything. The “test” being the midterm and final exams the students take each semester during the school year. While neither of these tests are standardized or impact school funding they are the major measure of student performance and determine whether a student passes a grade level or not. For ESL the “test” determines which level of English class a student is placed in (there are two levels per grade, upper and lower). The “test” determines about 70% of the students final grade with a paltry 10% set aside for English “speaking skills” (usually an oral presentation), 10% for unit tests, and the final 10% as an attitude grade. Under this system the Japanese teacher of English’s (JTE) only concern is that students are passing the “test”. As we are a private school the teachers are under a lot of pressure to have the students succeed as parents are likely to wonder why they are spending around $15,000 USD a year on their child’s education to have them fail. As a result of this pressure JTE’s engage in various questionable testing practices. One is that they often make the midterm or final exam to closely mirror the most recent unit test that students took. For students who are not doing well hours of extra time outside of class is devoted to teaching toward the “test”. Getting them to do written language drills of the exact nature that will be on the “test”. Furthermore, as the “test” is the be all and end all of a students grade, JTEs usually spend their time in direct instructional approaches, teaching to the “test” content through pencil and paper drill. For the students there is no small amount of stress associated with taking the “test”. As it mirrors the type of tests that they will take to enter high schools and universities students are taught that getting a good score is very important. As a result, I have seen a lot of stress manifest in the students. It is particularly bad with the grade 5 students as the first midterm test in middle school is likely the first high stakes test they have ever taken. Consequently, in my four years teaching grade 5 I have noted that the weeks leading up to the first midterm herald a time of increased disciplinary problems as these over stressed kids reach the limits of their ability to cope. And while in 2013 MEXT issued it’s mandate to reform education away from this testing based culture, I have yet to see any movement in pedagogical practice.
To compare to Tamagawa to the Hawaiian school I collected data from my Tamagawa-Hawaiian school exchange colleague Mr. H. I used a simple google survey to collect some necessary points of information from him and you can view all the results here, if you are interested. In contrast to Tamagawa, the Hawaiian school does not embrace a high stakes testing culture. Mr. H’s responses to statements included in the survey such as, “Teachers at my school teach to the test”, “I feel pressure from my colleagues to have my students get good test scores” or “The school rewards teachers whose students get good test scores”, were all uniformly negative. The Hawaiian school and Tamagawa make a good comparison as both are private school institutions and we can see a very clear difference. On the Tamagawa side there is pressure to have students succeed on the test and that is the main focus on instruction. Conversely, on the Hawaiian school side less instructional time is focused on tests and the main focus of instruction is elsewhere. To tack on one more comparison Mr. H was kind enough to share with me his experience as a resource teacher at DOE public schools in Hawaii (see Mr. H’s final response in the survey results). In contrast to the Hawaiian private school, Mr. H paints a picture of the Hawaiian public school being heavily focused on testing as, “[at first] teachers taught heavily to the test because it was a reflection on their skills. Over the past 5-10 years, there has been a shift to focus more on thinking skills rather than memorization and administrators have been trying to adjust the tests to accurately measure students’ critical thinking skills over fact recollection and test taking skills”. From Mr. H we can see the pattern of high-stakes testing culture in Hawaiian schools closely resembles that of many other US public schools. However, neither Tamagawa or The Hawaiian school, as private schools, engage heavily in standardized testing.
In this blog I described, in broad strokes, the culture of high-stakes testing in the USA and in Japan. Primarily, that in the USA it grew out of the NCLB legislation and wasn’t entirely considered successful. The proscribed antidote, the ESSA, while addressing many of the concerns people had with the NCLB is still too new to tell if it will significantly alter the current high-stakes testing practices. Similarly, Japanese education has a high-stakes testing culture, but in contrast to the USA, it is not government driven. Rather, it is the universities and big business hiring practices that have set-up the high-stakes entrance tests which usually define the life long success of Japanese high school students. Also of note, is that both the education authorities of the USA and Japan are attempting to reform educational practices, advocating more interconnected instructional pedagogy that promotes the 21st century skills of collaboration, communication, critical-thinking and creativity/problem solving. Both are also encountering only limited success. At a more local level I described the testing culture of the Tokyo private school where I work, Tamagawa Academy Middle and our Hawaiian exchange school, where my colleague Mr. H works. While both schools are somewhat independent from government mandate, Tamagawa still engages in fairly traditional Japanese instructional methodology of direct instruction toward a high-stakes written summative assessment. However, on the other hand The Hawaiian school does not necessarily engage in such practice. So, while generally high-stakes assessment in the USA and Japan share some similarities, at a school to school comparison level they can be quite different. On a personal note I find high-stakes assessment to be an unappealing prospect. Certainly, data on student ability is a good thing, but that can be done without making the assessment worth all the marbles, so to speak. I think it is impossible to design the perfect assessment, so when we force students to take these high-stakes tests we invariable set some up for failure. But how can we fail a person on a single snap-shot into their life. We’ve all had bad days where we fail the test of life, so too our students can have a bad day and fail a high-stakes test. In addition most standardized tests only predict better scores on other standardized tests. Therefore, when the dust settles on the results of these standardized tests we have students in one category, who we are confidant will pass the next standardized test, and we have the other group, who we worry will not pass the next standardized test. Students are much more complicated and deserve more than a label, a cookie cutter approach, a one-size fits all mentality. In the words of Albert Einstein, “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge” and this I believe is our duty as educators. To hold true to this we will have to take each student as they come, and try to open their minds, ignite their curiosity and fuel their passion. For many we will be able to follow the same approach or the same blend of lesson types or activities. However, we will be challenged by some students and in those challenges are opportunities to see beyond education, as we have conceived of it up to that point. This is how we will grow as teachers and as individuals. High-stakes testing robs us as educators of the opportunity to become better at our craft and better people through interactions with our students. High-stakes testing robs students of their freedom to grow into the person they want to be. For these reasons I hope education reform in Japan and the USA continues to shift toward a more student centered model.
Cordilia, A. (1989). College as Moratorium: The Hidden Functions of Japanese College Education. 1-13. [PDF] Retrieved August 8, 2017, from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED353917.pdf
Cummings, W. K. (2017) High-Stakes Schooling: What We Can Learn from Japan’s Experiences with Testing, Accountability, and Education Reform by Christopher Bjork (review), The Journal of Japanese Studies, 43(1) 227-229. [website] Retrieved August 8, 2017, from https://muse.jhu.edu/article/646966
Gardner, W. (2014, July 7). High test scores, low expectations. The Japan Times. [website] Retrieved August 8, 2017, from http://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2014/07/07/commentary/japan-commentary/high-test-scores-low-expectations/#.WYkZllFLfIU
The Glossary of Education Reform. (2014, August 18). High-Stakes Test Definition. [website] Retrieved August 07, 2017, from http://edglossary.org/high-stakes-testing/
Hofman, P., Goodwin, B., & Kahl, S. (2015). Re-Balancing Assessment: Placing Formative and Performance Assessment at the Heart of Learning and Accountability. McREL International, 1-16. [PDF] Retrieved August 8, 2017, from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED568906.pdf
Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. [MEXT] (2013, June 14). The Second Basic Plan for the Promotion of Education (Pamphlet). [PDF] Retrieved August 8, 2017, from http://www.mext.go.jp/en/policy/education/lawandplan/title01/detail01/__icsFiles/afieldfile/2015/03/06/1355571.pdf
United Opt Out National. (n.d.). [website] Retrieved August 07, 2017, from http://www.unitedoptoutnational.org/