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In an Era of Global Competition, What Exactly Are We Testing For?

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In this era of global competition, test scores are used as the primary benchmark to call out which countries will produce "successful" students. Knowing that American students are competing against a global pool of the best and brightest has led education leaders to focus more on how they score on international tests compared to students from other countries.

But high test scores don't provide a complete picture of students' success, according to Yong Zhao, world-renown author, scholar, and professor of education at University of Oregon.

“Countries that score highly, have students with lower confidence,” Zhao said in his keynote address to educators gathered online for the 2013 Leadership Summit.

That seems counter-intuitive, and Zhao isn’t claiming a causal connection -- he questions whether focusing on test scores might inadvertently lower confidence. Zhao has analyzed data from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and discovered a negative correlation between high math scores and confidence.

Similarly, in his analysis of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test that analyzes how countries score in reading, math and science, Zhao found a negative correlation between attitude and attainment. In other words, the countries with lower scores had students who reported higher interest in the subjects. Zhao analyzed media stories from high scoring countries like Korea and Japan, where students don’t show enough confidence or enthusiasm for subjects in which they excel.


He found the same results when he looked at students’ belief in their entrepreneurial capacity, their ability to start businesses or be self-starters. “Everybody is trying to perfect this system and make a good bet about the knowledge and skills that our children might need,” he said. “All of this says that the measures we use to measure education outcomes, to view them as the best education systems in terms of test scores, do not result in the same kinds of things we might value otherwise -- entrepreneurial capabilities, confidence, enjoyment.”


Zhao's findings have led him to question the value of the tests altogether. If the stated goal is to get kids ready for careers, and careers demand confidence, creativity, and an entrepreneurial attitude, then why focus on test scores that seem to produce the opposite effect?

“A lot of times teachers have been asked to improve our schools, to make our schools more effective, but the question I’m raising is, effective at what?” Zhao said. “Some reading programs could improve your students' reading scores, but cause your students to hate education.” He’s concerned that national initiatives like the Common Core State Standards could have unintended consequences.

In Zhao’s view, most education systems start out by defining the outcomes. They make a bet about which skills will be important and promise that if students master those skills, they will succeed. Zhao sees this as a flawed approach because it forces everyone into a homogenous group, a bit like making sausage out of all different kinds of meat. Defining outcomes allows systems to measure results, but it stamps out individuality.

Countries that score well on international exams, like Korea, have clearly defined outcomes, narrow curricula, and dictatorial systems with clear ranking and sorting systems. Students know exactly how they stack up in that system.

“Everybody is reminded everyday that they have to master the skills,” Zhao said. “But in the process you have people who are either kicked out of the system or put down into a different school and they will lose confidence.”  By valuing what’s prescribed and assessed, the system creates a uniform group with little confidence in the individual’s unique contributions.

Zhao pointed to the tremendous amount of local control in the U.S. educational system as both its savior and a contributing factor to its lower test scores. It allows for different types of schools and for students to demonstrate that they can be good at different things. There are arts schools, engineering schools and schools focused on bi-lingual education. That kind of choice allows students the chance to find what they are good at. The U.S. system also gives learners many second chances to keep learning and find their strengths.

[RELATED READING: Some Ask: What's the Value of Common Core State Standards?]

“The new education needs to start with the child. Not with the prescribed content,” Zhao said. “We start with individual differences; we start with their cultural strengths.” Beginning with the individual and building upwards from there allows each person to become uniquely great at something. And when students are passionate about anything, they can then be creative and entrepreneurial. For Zhao, the new model has to be about creating a new middle class based on creativity.

To do that, he suggests giving students more autonomy over their learning and emphasizing the importance of making authentic products that solve problems. He also emphasizes a global learning community that can collaborate to fill the gaps that each country, school or teacher experiences.


Zhao is actively trying to create the learning experiences he has written and lectured about. He’s started an online education community called ObaWorld, which costs $1 per student per year and is a closed, private site. It’s a cloud-based learning platform, like Moodle, and includes similar features like the ability to make and evaluate portfolios. But Zhao is most excited that he’s recruiting students and teachers from all over the world to participate. So a teacher can create a tool or course and put it on ObaWorld to help an educator on the other side of the country.


His other big push is to create more entrepreneurial school leaders through the Global Education Leadership Master’s program, which is based online and accredited through University of Oregon. Students will have to create a product that will improve education and will be encouraged to think about schools as entrepreneurial global enterprises.

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