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Lessons of National Tests for the U.S.

As the U.S. moves inexorably toward national testing, I think it's worth looking at the experiences of other countries in this regard. I'll focus on France's baccalauréat, which is better known as the bac, and on China's gaokao.

The bac is a weeklong national test, which constitutes the core of all high school curriculums. It is the sole basis for determining the awarding of high school diplomas and admission to marquee-name universities, and largely the basis for job prospects ("Rite of Passage for French Students Receives Poor Grade," The New York Times, Jun. 28).

In existence since 1808, the weeklong bac now consists of 3,990 questions developed by state commissions. Grading is done by teachers who are overseen by instructors and university professors. The bac is often accused of containing esoteric questions that can be answered correctly by only a small percentage of students, while others claim the test has become too easy. It is also criticized as highly sensitive to the socioeconomic backgrounds of students, and relying too heavily on rote memorization.

The gaokao is China's college entrance exam, with roots dating back to the imperial exam system. It determines whether students go to a top-tier university. It is a two-day test given in June that is taken by more than 9 million students across the nation ("Test That Can Determine the Course of Life in China Gets a Closer Examination," The New York Times, Jun. 30, 2012). The gaokao consists of three main sections testing Chinese, English and math. Each section is worth 150 points. Students who score poorly on these three subjects rarely pass, even if they do well on subsequent sections in either science or the humanities (e-mail from John Richard Schrock, professor of biology, in residence in China).

The test, which is criticized for its emphasis on rote memorization, is graded by professors. Although China is trying to focus on equity, education quality is rigged in favor of wealthy and well connected parents ("A Chinese Education, for a Price," The New York Times, Nov. 21, 2012). Because so much is on the line, great pains are taken to prevent cheating. Students are scanned for electronic devices, and in many provinces the right index fingerprint is also scanned. Scores are posted with the student's name. Those who do not pass the gaokao, or who choose not to take it, are still awarded their high school diploma as long as they pass their regular courses.

What lessons can the U.S. learn from the bac and the gaokao? I think the most important is that both high-stakes tests are antithetical to our belief in democratization in education. Scores overwhelmingly determine who is admitted to elite universities. In contrast, universities in this country place great weight on diversity in the admissions process. For example, the University of California has been criticized for not doing enough to boost minority enrollment, even though it relies on a holistic policy ("Who gets into UC?," Los Angeles Times, Jul. 7). However, I doubt that the bac and gaokao will follow in our footprints. Testing in France and China is too deeply rooted in tradition for that to happen.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.
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