Sunday, September 12, 2010

East, West, and tests

I'm experiencing something very similar to what NY Times writer Elisabeth Rosenthal discusses below. In Eugene our kids attended a fancy university-run preschool, which was highly unstructured. The teachers and administrators were a bit defensive about this -- Don't say they're just playing all day, that's how kids learn! But surely in a 6 or 8 hour school day there is room for an hour or so of structured learning? Our Taipei kindergarten is much more scheduled, with phys ed, homework, and a detailed workbook that tracks each kid's progress. Interestingly, the fad in Asia is toward more Western style education, so perhaps the two will meet in the middle.

NYTimes: Testing, the Chinese Way

When my children were 6 and 8, taking tests was as much a part of the rhythm of their school day as tag at recess or listening to stories at circle time. There were the “mad minute” math quizzes twice each week, with the results elaborately graphed. There were regular spelling quizzes. Even today I have my daughter’s minutely graded third-grade science exams, with grades like 23/25 or A minus.

We were living in China, where their school blended a mostly Western elementary school curriculum with the emphasis on discipline and testing that typifies Asian educational styles. In Asia, such a march of tests for young children was regarded as normal, and not evil or particularly anxiety provoking. That made for some interesting culture clashes. I remember nearly constant tension between the Asian parents, who wanted still more tests and homework, and the Western parents, who were more concerned with whether their kids were having fun — and wanted less.

... Some education experts hail the change as a step forward from the ideological dark ages. “Research has long shown that more frequent testing is beneficial to kids, but educators have resisted this finding,” said Gregory J. Cizek, a professor of educational measurement and evaluation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Of course, the tests have to be age-appropriate, Professor Cizek notes, and the Race to the Top program includes funds for research to develop new exams. Filling in three pages of multiple-choice bubbles may not be appropriate for young children. Likewise “high stakes” tests — like the Chinese university entrance exam, which alone determines university placement — create anxiety and may unfairly derail a youngster’s future based on poor performance on a single day.

But Professor Cizek, who started his career as a second-grade teacher, said the prevailing philosophy of offering young children unconditional praise and support was probably not the best prescription for successful education. “What’s best for kids is frequent testing, where even if they do badly, they can get help and improve and have the satisfaction of doing better,” he said. “Kids don’t get self-esteem by people just telling them they are wonderful.”

... When testing is commonplace and the teachers are supportive — as my children’s were, for the most part — the tests felt like so many puzzles; not so much a judgment on your being, but an interesting challenge. It is a testament to the International School of Beijing — or to the malleability of childhood memory — that Andrew now says he did not realize that he was being tested. Will tests be like that in a national program, like Race to the Top?

When we moved back to New York City, my children, then 9 and 11, started at a progressive school with no real tests, no grades, not even auditions for the annual school musical. They didn’t last long. It turned out they had come to like the feedback of testing.

“How do I know if I get what’s going on in math class?” my daughter asked with obvious discomfort after a month. Primed with Beijing test-taking experience, they each soon tested into New York City’s academic public schools — where they have had tests aplenty and (probably not surprisingly) a high proportion of Asian classmates.

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