As the fifth year of NAPLAN testing gets underway this week, it has prompted the usual debates. Are the tests in our student’s best interests? Are students adequately prepared? If teachers are “teaching to the test”, what will be the implications for students’ overall education?
High stakes tests create a culture in which academic achievement is highly valued. Students must perform well, or there will be consequences – whether it is in terms of rankings, prestige or funding. It is in each school’s best interests to prepare their students, and to make sure that they do as well as possible.
Australian schools should be placing this kind of emphasis on academic achievement – valuing human intelligence and motivating students is important.
But there can be a price to pay. All you need to do is look at the example set by the culture of learning in many East Asian countries. It is this kind of culture, rather than the testing itself that we should try and stop happening in Australia.
Hard at the top
At the international level, East Asian countries such as China, South Korea, Singapore and Japan are notoriously successful in standardised testing. In the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), they consistently appear in the top ten countries.
That these East Asian students do so well in international assessments is often linked to the pedagogical practices which emphasise memorisation and drills.
Students from Confucian heritage countries are widely known to be high achievers on these tests because of their emphasis on repetition and the higher levels of effort they invest in studying.
However, the academic accomplishments of students from these Asian countries comes at a cost.
High price to pay
European students – from Austria, Germany, Finland, The Netherlands and Sweden – perform only slightly worse than their Asian counterparts. But students from the top PISA Asian countries tend to be more anxious and self-doubting. They are less confident and have a lower self-concept scores than their European counterparts.
On the measure of self-concept among 41 countries, European students are on top and Asian students are at the bottom.
It is generally accepted that Asian students experience tremendous stress due to familial and societal demands for academic success. Confucian Asian culture has a long history of high regard for learning and achievement and emphasis on effort to achieve academically.
In the minds of Asian students with this cultural heritage, the distinction between the self and one’s family is not clear-cut. It’s not just an individual’s academic achievement or failure it is the family’s too.
This means the students take the implications and consequences of their academic success and failure very seriously. From this vantage point, the internal pressure for academic achievement is probably higher in Confucian Asian societies than in the other parts of the world.
Lessons for Australia
Students from these East Asian countries possess a strong drive towards achievement, which is deeply rooted in their culture. They are also less forgiving when it comes to underachievement and misbehaviour.
But what can Australia learn from this example? And what can it tell us about high stakes tests?
In the context of NAPLAN, and the high pressure that the tests are placing on Australian students to achieve academic success, the lesson could go one of two ways – depending on the comparative values that are placed on educational outcomes and psychological well-being.
There is solid evidence to suggest that the education systems and pedagogical practices of East Asian countries are highly successful.
If Australia is determined to achieve high levels of academic performance, students should be motivated to work harder. Testing can motivate and bring up the level of academic performance.
But we must also be aware that consistently strong academic performance has seen the presence of higher mean anxiety and self-doubt. This should be of concern to educators and to Australian society as a whole.
Achieving high levels of academic performance may not be worth the sacrifice of young peoples’ psychological well-being.
NAPLAN-style tests can have the impact of raising the aspirations of students and increasing their confidence in their overall academic abilities. But they can also have the reverse effect, if the onus on success is too strong.
High stakes tests are not necessarily the incorrect path.
Do Australians want to have a performance-driven education system that values performance over the well-being of its students, or is there another way of fostering high achievement without going down the Confucian path?