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School testing: Is there a middle ground between high stakes and low stakes testing?

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 4 2012 1:02 p.m. MST

In the United States, schools perpetual testing, but without giving students reasons to do well.

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Most Asian education systems favor high-stakes tests empowered to dash college plans and career choices in one mighty swoop.

American schools resist such draconian measures, but do plenty of testing, too, without giving students a sense that the results count for anything. (Most of the consequences of American accountability testing fall upon schools and teachers, not students.) Is there, perhaps, some middle ground between such extremes?

Panic over high-stakes testing in Hong Kong has led to the rise of "tutor kings" and "tutor queens" — celebrity exam coaches who promise to improve mediocre grades, according to a BBC News story.

And, the super-tutors give off vibes that say brains aren't all that counts. Posters in shopping malls and on the sides of buses advertise the tutoring prowess of glamorous-looking young men and women in stylish clothing.

"In Hong Kong's consumer culture, looks sell," BBC News said. "Celebrity tutors in their sophisticated hair-dos and designer trappings are treated like idols by their young fans who flock to their classes. And they have earnings to match — some have become millionaires and appear regularly on television shows."

Hong Kong's celebrity tutor fad is fueled by ambitious parents who want their children to get into elite high schools and colleges, BBC News said. Star tutors also attract students in Thailand, Sri Lanka, India and other parts of Asia. And in South Korea, 90 percent of primary school children attend tutoring classes.

Meanwhile, accountability reforms have led U.S. schools to do more and more testing, as noted by education writer Amanda Ripley, longtime TIME magazine contributor.

"We do an insane amount of testing in the U.S., but none of it matters much for the lives and futures of individual students," Ripley wrote on her blog. "We do very little to help kids connect the dots between what they are learning in school and what kind of car, job and life they will have as adults. They find out eventually, but way too late."

Ripley's remarks were prompted by the "Lessons from PISA" report, which sums up results of international testing of students in industrialized nations. On the 2009 PISA test (it's given every four years) U.S. students placed 31st in math, 23rd in science and 17th in reading.

"In the United States, high school students may be led to believe that the outcome is the same whether they take easy courses and get D's in them or take tough courses and get A's," the "Lessons from PISA report said. "Either way, they might think, they can get into the local community college and get on with their lives."

In Japan, however, a student who wants to work at a Toyota plant knows he or she must do well in tough subjects and get a principal's recommendation, so the student works hard, the report said. Likewise for a German student who wants to work in a Daimler Benz machine shop.

"The reason examination systems matter is that they provide strong incentives for students to take tough courses and study hard," the report said. "One of the most striking features of the American education system, in contrast with the education systems of the most successful countries, is its failure to provide strong incentives to the average student to work hard in school.

"If the reader does not, for whatever reason, like the idea of examination systems, then the lesson learned here should be that some other means, no less effective, should be found to motivate students to work as hard in school as students in other countries do," the report concluded.

As American education reforms continue, perhaps attention will be directed toward the sweet spot that lies between high-stakes testing, and perpetual testing with no stakes at all.

EMAIL: cbaker@deseretnews.com

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