Saturday, October 25, 2014

High-stakes testing in Finland

Last week I blogged about a CNN opinion piece by Pasi Sahlberg, former director general in the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture (and now a visiting professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.)

In that piece, Sahlberg claims that the three things that make the Finnish school system superior to ours are its focus on educational equity, its education spending, and the time it allots for teacher collaboration. Saying nothing about the vast differences in teacher quality and classroom curricula, Sahlberg instead faults American schools for spending too much standardized testing. He notes that Finnish students, in the course of their pre-college years, face only one standardized test. But he doesn’t discuss either the contents of this test, or just how high stakes it is compared to American tests. For that, you have to go over to an article that he only links to here: one he wrote for the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog back in March. Here's what he writes there:

The only external standardized test in Finland is the national Matriculation Examination, high-stakes exam that determines college readiness and which all students are required to pass in order to graduate high school exit and enter university. At the time of writing this over 30,000 Finnish high school students are taking this all-important examination that enjoys high esteem as a sign of being a mature, educated person in Finnish society.
A single test whose passage is mandatory for all students for high school graduation and college enrollment; an “all-important examination that enjoys high esteem as a sign of being a mature, educated person in Finnish society”: no current test in America is anywhere near this high stakes—at least for who matter the most, i.e., the students.

Not only is it high stakes; it’s also academically rigorous. It requires, not just critical thinking, but actual content knowledge in, for example, history and math. Here’s the sample history question that Sahlberg cites:
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels predicted that a socialist revolution would first happen in countries like Great Britain. What made Marx and Engels claim that and why did a socialist revolution happen in Russia?
And here, courtesy Sahlberg and Google Translate, are some sample math questions from the mathematics part of test. There are 15 problems in all, of which students must do 10. I’ve chosen the ones that had the clearest translations and were easiest to format.

1 c. Simplify the expression (a2-b2)/(a - b) + (a2-b2)/(a + b) with a not equal to b or –b.

5. A circle is tangent to the line 3x-4y = 0 at the point (8, 6), and it touches the positive x-axis. Define the circle center and radius.

6. Let a1…an be real numbers. What value of the variable x make the sum (x + a1)2 + (x + a2)2 + ….+ (x + an)n as small as possible?

9. The plane 9 + x + 2y + 3z = 6 intersects the positive coordinate axis at the points A, B and C.
a) Determine the volume of a tetrahedron whose vertices are at the origin O and the points A, B and C.
b) Determine the area of the triangle ABC.

13. Let us consider positive integers n and k for which n + (n +1) + (n + 2) + + (n + k) = 1007
a) Prove that these numbers n and k satisfy the equation (k +1)(2n + k) = 2014.

No wonder Finish students who come to America end up having to repeat the school year upon their return.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am not sure what it is exactly that Mr. Sahlberg finds wrong with American school standardized testing in Math. But I could offer you some of my own prospective. It should be noted, that American-style standardized testing in Math has been the target of incredible amount of ridicule and criticism among Europeans since at least middle-to-late eightieths. Consequently, it is likely that there is no educators in place currently here, who have any idea of how it should be done right.
Here is a list of what I think is, and for a long time has been consistently wrong with these tests. Each of the items in the list could be expanded into a lengthy post of its own, so I for now will offer only very brief expansions.
They are based on a dumbed-down curriculum, which they, in turn, promote;
They pose wrong types of questions – good test questions should allow a student at least 20 - 30 minutes to work on each one of them, so there should be much fewer questions but each one of them should be much deeper;
They assess for the wrong skills;
They are using wrong technology – they should not be of multiple choice type and should be based on a human evaluation of a student reasoning at length;
They are improperly organized – test results should be returned to students with errors marked;
They promote wrong type of thinking (or, rather, no thinking at all);
They have an undue influence on the whole education process, because it is one thing to have a single test at the exit of the school, and completely another to have several each year;
So if you ask me what is wrong with American-style standardized testing for Math, the short answer would be - everything.