How do we measure student achievement? By standardized test scores or by something else? And what is the relationship between student achievement and the economic strength of a nation?
Arne Duncan, when he was Secretary of Education, spoke about the achievement of South Korean students, as measured by standardized tests, and advocated that the United States follow the South Korean approach to education so that our students can achieve as the South Korean students do on those standardized tests. A recent (March 15, 2016) letter to the editor in Education Week described how the South Korean students achieve those high test scores. Here is that letter:
South Korea’s ‘Top Performance’ Numbers Should Not Be Applauded
To the Editor:
As a student from South Korea who is now studying in the United States, I find it surprising that many people here applaud the South Korean education system. The Center on International Education Benchmarking lists South Korea as a “top performer,” and even Arne Duncan, the former U.S. secretary of education, has asked why the United States can’t be more like South Korea. As a recent Commentary argued, the United States should not blindly applaud and emulate countries that perform well on international assessments.
I want to share what South Korea’s high performance on these assessments is not telling you.
First, beyond South Korea’s impressive scores on international exams, there are unhappy, sleep-deprived, and suicidal South Korean students. South Korean students report levels of happiness that are among the lowest for youths in developed nations. High school students report sleeping an average of 5.5 hours per day in order to study. Alarmingly, slightly more than half of South Korean teenagers reported having suicidal thoughts in response to a 2014 poll conducted by the country’s Korea Health Promotion Foundation; over 40 percent of the respondents listed academic pressure and uncertainty over their futures as their greatest concern.
Second, South Korea’s high scores are a reflection of private tutoring rather than the public education system itself. About 77 percent of South Korean students participate in an average of 10 hours of private tutoring a week. This percentage is more than double the average rate of private tutoring in countries tracked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In 2013, South Korean parents paid the equivalent of $18 billion for private tutoring in order to give their children a competitive advantage.
Moreover, in the education system where high performance is all that matters, struggling students as well as students with disabilities are often neglected and left behind.
Thus, no matter how high the country ranks on international tests, our seemingly impressive test scores come at too high a price.
As a South Korean, I call on the world to see what is beyond my country’s high scores on international assessments. Until South Korea addresses its pressing educational issues, such as student well-being, reliance on private tutoring, and support for students with disabilities, the country should not be considered a model system for the United States.
April B. Choi
I would bet that most of us are not willing to pay the price that the South Koreans are paying for their children to get high scores on standardized tests.
The good news for the United States, which never scored at the top of the pack in the 50 years there have been international standardized tests, is that standardized tests are not important. Standardized tests measure only one thing: the ability to take a standardized test. And that is a skill rapidly going out of vogue because that skill does not equip students for the world of work they will enter. The world of work in our postindustrial era demands other skills. This current time in history and the decades that stretch ahead are described in the report as the Conceptual Age. That age requires skills such as designing, making meaning, creativity, problem-solving, and developing new ideas and artifacts.
The even better news for the United States is that the kind of education that our students need and which will engage their minds and touch their souls is exactly the kind of education that will make our country economically strong in this Conceptual Age. They need to learn to question and to explore those questions. They need to learn how to learn. They need to learn how to collaborate so that they deepen and broaden their individual thinking through interaction with others. They need to learn to tell their stories of how they developed their thinking and arrived at new knowledge and to tell their stories of what has not yet been imagined. The need to learn to tap into their own creativity and their own passion.
Arne Duncan was wrong. John King is wrong. U.S. education policy is wrong. High standardized test scores are not a worthy goal. We will harm the minds and deplete the souls of our precious children if we stick with emulating South Korea. We will head for economic peril as a nation if we do not create a different kind of education, one that can never, ever be measured by standardized tests.
It’s time for a change. Let’s get on it.