Wednesday, July 23, 2014

High-stakes testing in the very best sense

I was recently chatting with my French about the French baccalaureate, which is the exam you must pass in order to receive your high school diploma and move on to university. “Le bac”, in fact, is the only thing that determines your admission to university. Not your grades, not your extracurriculars, not your teacher recommendations. Talk about high stakes testing!

Except that the French bac is not at all like America’s high stakes testing. It consists, mostly, of essay questions, lab work, oral exams, and a research project, in all major academic subjects. Examinations are spread out over multiple days and are assessed by multiple examiners, and, except for the oral components, are done so anonymously. The process is, at once, more comprehensive, holistic, challenging, and individualized than the American testing system is, whether we’re talking about the No Child Left Behind Tests, the Common Core tests, the SATs, or the Aps, even if you put all these tests together.

Other European countries are similar. Whether we’re talking about the A-Levels in Britain, or the Abitur in Germany, it’s one big, challenging, comprehensive exam that determines your prospects for university.

And, while its detractors are legion, might there be some real virtues to this system?

It does, of course, favor academic skills over resume-padding and so-called leadership skills. And while this might seem overly narrow to many of us Americans, we should keep in mind the breadth of academic skills covered. Un-aided writing (no ghost-written essays here), analytical thinking (both in writing and orally), problem solving (with some truly challenging problems in math and physics), research skills, laboratory skills, breadth and depth of knowledge in all academic subjects: aren’t these what determine how prepared one is to benefit from university-level courses?

The baccalaureate system is also far more resistant to the tinkerings of privileged families than America’s college admissions system is. Expensive test-prep won’t get you very far; the bac tests aren’t gameable the way the SATs are. You can’t hire people to write or edit your essays for you. Expensive resume stuffers--unpaid internships, private lessons, and expensive programs abroad—have no place in the European university-level admissions process. The only way to prepare for the bac is to read a lot, write a lot, do a lot of practice problems, and study a lot—which is identical to the best way to prepare for university.

There’s also something to be said for final examinations that ultimately trumps everything else—your grades, your broader academic portfolio, your day-to-day class participation. Yes, you might not be someone who tests well, either orally or in writing. Yes, you might being having an off day while being tested. Yes, it would be nice if you could retake the bac should you fail it, without being stigmatized for life (and, in fact, you can retake it). But (unlike the SATs) the bac is given over a number of days (with some of the subject exams given at the end of the junior year of high school), and it seems to me that simply being a good or bad test taker is less of a variable when we’re talking, not about a bunch of tricky, tightly-timed multiple choice questions, but about a breadth of essays, problems, labs, oral questions, and research projects.

Then there are the biases that the baccalaureate system bypasses. What if you’re not a teacher-pleaser, or a diligent and timely homework-completer, or a big participator in class, or an effective grade-grubber, and what if, nonetheless, you are able to prepare yourself, in your own way, to write excellent exam essays and solve tough math and science problems and effectively complete the lab work and research project and ace the orals, and, in short, ace the entire, comprehensive exam? Whose business is it, really, how you got there, as long as you found your path?

Isn’t this, in fact, a system that favors multiple strategies and learning styles—in the very best sense of those terms?


oldandrew said...

I can't resist commenting that no part of the curriculum is under more continual threat here in England than A-levels. They are absolutely hated by the educational establishment who would much rather have a broader diploma, perhaps including more vocational elements, than have A-levels as the "gold standard" for university admission. Only the politicians have saved them for this long.

Cranberry said...

The German Abitur includes the grades earned in the last two years of high school (Gymnasium.) Thus, it does include classwork; there is also a separate grade awarded each term for oral participation in class. So teacher-pleasing behavior and homework completion are significant components of the Abitur.

Theodore Dalrympole pointed out in 2005 that the French Bac's rigor has been significantly diluted: French educational certificates have undergone the same grade inflation as British ones: for example, the proportion of children who pass their bac nowadays is more than five times what it was in 1970. In other words, the bac is not the guarantee of ability and accomplishment that it once was, and employers must make their choices on other grounds than a debased certification..

FedUpMom said...

I'm not happy with any system that closes doors for people based on their performance in adolescence. Lots of people, including very bright people, have a troubled adolescence. They need to have an on-ramp somewhere, especially in a society like ours where a college degree has become a basic requirement for almost any job.