DERMODY: Less test-prep may eventually lead to better scores

Opinions Column: Under the Radar

Every three years, the Organization for Economic and Co-operation Development (OECD) administers an exam that tests 15-year-olds on their performance in mathematics, science and reading. The Program for International Student Assessment ( PISA) evaluates students in 72 different countries and will be taken next in 2018.

The most recent PISA results from 2015, similar to years prior, told us: Asian countries dominate all three sections, European nations are competitive and occasionally crack the top five and America remains average — as the United States once again ranked in the middle of the 72-nation pack.

While the PISA test is not meant to be exhaustive, nor should it be used as the sole indicator of a nation’s intelligence, it does provide us with basic insight into our ability to prepare students for the world around them. Although there is no single method to follow or country to model in terms of educational success, all effective education systems have one thing in common — constantly adapting to the changing needs of society.

What does this look like? In Finland, it looks like much smaller class sizes and less standardized tests, to keep students interested and engaged. In Singapore, it is better-trained teachers and more time for students to be innovative, to ensure that the curriculum coincides with real-life applications. As a result, these nations waste less time preparing for tests but still score better on them anyway.

Why is that? The PISA test does not measure our ability to simply take an exam or memorize information — it assesses our understanding of broad concepts and our ability to communicate and solve complex problems. While other nations have realized this, the United States has not. Instead, America has adopted a backward way of thinking and has attempted to improve test scores simply by increasing test-prep. That is like a runner training for a marathon by buying the best shoes, rather than putting in the miles. By focusing on test-prep, America is covering up the symptoms rather than treating the problems.

So what does America need to do differently? Two things:

First and foremost, we need to invest in our teachers. As the education chief at OECD recently reminded us, “ … an education system can never exceed the quality of its teachers.”Currently, there is a shortage of educators in the country and a shortcoming of the quality standards of teaching.

We need to invest in a teaching force that is better paid, highly educated and more appreciated. If we treat and respect our educators more like doctors and lawyers, and less like “those who cannot do, so they teach,” we will certainly see a change in the type of person that is attracted to the profession. Eventually, we could become more selective and enforce stricter prerequisite requirements.

Nations such as Singapore and Finland, for instance, have invested heavily in quality teaching forces. They have found that higher pay and more training did not result in wasted money, but instead a revival of the profession. By heightening the prestige and status of teaching, their education programs have been able to attract the brightest graduates and in turn, strengthen the education that they provide.

Secondly, America must then combine qualified teachers with a school environment that promotes academic, social and emotional learning. In Ireland, for example, teachers meet strict hiring requirements but their academic results are far less impressive than Singapore and Finland.

Why is this? Nations such as Ireland (and the U.S.) fail to incorporate creativity into their vigorous curriculums. The teachers may be qualified, but they fail to understand that standardized testing is not always the best way to measure or foster intelligence. The primary goal of our country's education should be to produce students that are equipped to understand their society, participate in democracy and contribute to the workforce. In other words, “we want to make learning authentic for students … ,” as Ricky Tan Pee Loon, an educator from Singapore explained, “ … It’s got to be related to the real world, so it helps with their learning, not just in math and science but in many other areas as well.” However, the country has become so bogged down in the testing well and appearing to look good on paper that we have completely lost sight of everything that is needed to make that possible. In doing so, we have created an academic culture that is stagnant and counterproductive. Students are overworked and stressed, which prevents them from enjoying school and valuing their education. And teachers are unenthusiastic, as they have simply accepted American schooling as the "standardized-test prepping machine" that it has become. American schools must provide students with a balance between academics and artistic expression, if they truly have an interest in preparing students for life beyond graduation. 

Luke Dermody is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in political science and criminal justice with a minor in economics. His column, "Under the Radar," runs on alternate Fridays.

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