Where is our obsession with testing leading us?

For many countries with “model” education systems, it’s becoming clear that a focus on standardized testing is actually killing the kind of independent thinking that fosters creative prowess. Among the top 10 economies in the Global Innovation Index (GII), the annual innovation ranking co-published by Cornell University INSEAD and World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a UN agency, only two are Asian (Singapore at #7 and Hong Kong at #10). Notably, the top five positions are all held by European countries, followed by the U.S. in sixth place. China, on the other hand, is ranked 29th, and India is far down the list at #76.

No one doubts that for a nation to remain competitive it needs to prepare their next generation for success in the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). The question is, how many STEM graduates are needed? Even here in the U.S., attitudes are changing.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that while the total U.S. labor force will grow from 153.9 million in 2010 to 174.4 million in 2020—a 14.3 percent increase—engineering jobs will grow by only 11 percent over that same period (from 1.34 million to 1.45 million). Ten of the 15 engineering disciplines, in fact, will experience slower than average growth.

As someone who has spent decades in the pursuit of math proficiency among America’s young people, I believe that mathematics is essential not only to lifetime success, but also for a society’s future. But in this worthy pursuit, we should not slavishly define standardized testing as the benchmark of effectiveness. Moreover, we should realize that testing can have a significant, even debilitating, downside for our children.

Testing has its place as long as it doesn’t push kids away from a sense of wonder and fascination for the world around them. Finland, another country held high for its academic excellence, believes that the overall goal should be a child’s holistic development. Finnish schools pursue the notion that children have different kinds of intellects. In fact the national curriculum dictates that public schools must have a balanced program including art, music, crafts and physical education—plus sufficient time for self-directed activities.

If America is to succeed in educating its students for the future, it’s becoming increasingly clear that rigid, standardized testing isn’t the magical solution. Global competitiveness is important—but it probably won’t come through a regimented, computer-scored exam.

A far more worthy goal would be to create a system wherein the whole individual is addressed, developed, and encouraged to thrive in the pursuit of a better life. That’s a lesson that Asia is just now beginning to learn—and it’s one we should as well, before it’s too late.

Robert Sun is the CEO of Suntex International and inventor of First In Math, an online program dedicated to energizing every child to learn, love, and live math.  

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