Reining in rampant testing for the sake of equity

Reining in rampant testing for the sake of equity

Moritz Bilagher is the Quality Education Team Leader at UNESCO’s Asia-Pacific Regional Bureau for Education in Bangkok. (Screen grab YouTube/UNOi)
Moritz Bilagher is the Quality Education Team Leader at UNESCO’s Asia-Pacific Regional Bureau for Education in Bangkok. (Screen grab YouTube/UNOi)

As an avid reader, one of the first things I do upon arriving in any new city is survey the local bookshops. Arriving in Bangkok recently, I was pleased to find that the city had a wide variety of well-stocked bookshops. At one of these, I was taken by the amount of space -- seven full rows -- devoted to one particular subject: test preparation.

This should perhaps not have been too surprising as this region is well known for its education testing. Entry examinations for the Chinese civil service during the Sui Dynasty (around 600 CE) and beyond, were likely the first of their kind anywhere in the world.

These days, the achievements of some East Asian countries on international tests such as OECD PISA, is legendary, and both economically rich and developing countries are doing well: the Republic of Korea, Japan, Shanghai and Singapore; but also Vietnam. This was not always the case -- when international tests first began, current high achievers such as Hong Kong, for example, came in mid-table.

Rather than trying to find explanations for this success, Unesco Bangkok recently tried to better understand this region's predilection for tests and also, crucially, at what cost this comes.

The 2012 OECD-PISA tests shed some light in this area. The tests included a question on happiness in school and the results showed that the highest achieving countries in terms of overall test scores were often the least happy. The Republic of Korea led the list, with Japan not trailing far behind. It should be noted that learners in some countries, such as Singapore, were happy and high achieving.

In our new publication, The Culture of Testing: Sociocultural Impacts on Learning in Asia and the Pacific, we argue that there exists a culture of testing, with some nuances, across the region, and that this culture is both shaped by and shapes social and cultural norms.

The anxiety and pressure that comes with testing is at times regarded not even as a necessary evil, but as a metaphor for life: as one Korean parent expresses it, life is like a test and real tests are but a reflection of life. In this sense, tests are looked at as a way of understanding life.

There are also questions of how cultures of testing can impact societies. One cannot deny the existing -- and often growing -- socioeconomic inequalities both between and within countries in this region. Might the testing culture have something to do with this?

After all, tests tend to be individual and invite competition rather than collaboration. It is plausible that this does not only reflect, but also instils a specific mindset: one that stipulates that success in life is not just a question of passing tests, but of defeating others in the course of doing so.

This is, of course, at odds with the work that hose in development do and runs counter to the ethos of the United Nations' 2030 agenda, which aims to leave no one behind.

The hypothesis implicit in the report -- that assessments are not only shaped by socioeconomic realities but that the reverse is equally true -- raises some intriguing questions: might it be possible to intervene in our social structure, across the region, through reforming educational testing practices?

Could we develop assessments for the collective, involving teamwork, or test broader areas of learning (the socio-emotional, the physical, the artistic) in an attempt to influence learning and, ultimately, the fabric of society?

Could a change in educational testing be itself an engine of broader social change?

An exchange of opinions on this subject, which is so important in the lives of the people in this region and so crucial to their future, is welcome.

Moritz Bilagher is the Quality Education Team Leader at Unesco's Asia-Pacific Regional Bureau for Education in Bangkok.

Moritz Bilagher

Quality Education Team Leader at UNESCO

Moritz Bilagher is the Quality Education Team Leader at UNESCO’s Asia-Pacific Regional Bureau for Education in Bangkok.

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