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NCCE Keynote: Do Test Scores Matter?

I'm fortunate enough to be blogging live today and tomorrow from the Northwest Council for Computer Education's annual conference here in Portland, where Yong Zhao, the director of the Center for Advanced Technology in Education at the University of Oregon in Eugene, delivered this morning's keynote.

In a speech that drew on his experience as a Chinese immigrant who came to the United States 20 years ago, Zhao said part of the problem with American education was that "schools are like hospitals—we're supposed to fix our kids." Whenever social and economic challenges arise for the U.S., policymakers turn to problems in the public school system for blame, he said.

(You can read more about Zhao in the upcoming issue of Technology Counts coming out on March 17.)

Over the past few years, mediocre U.S. performance on international tests has drawn a lot of domestic attention. But U.S. students' test scores have "always been bad," Zhao said. Since the 1960s, the U.S. has not excelled on international tests like the Program for International Student Assessment.

A more pertinent question, said Zhao, is what scores mean compared with the country's economic standing. And countries with the highest test scores actually have lower rates of economic growth, wealth, and creativity, he said.

In the last 8 years, China has actually cut back on time spent on math and academics in favor of more electives and a broader curriculum, said Zhao. What matters most, perhaps, is not how well our students do on tests, but how well our environment is suited to foster creativity, diversity, entrepreneurship, and passion. "Why do we try to weaken our strength?" he asked.

Although Zhao's speech was a refreshing perspective, as I was filing out of the conference hall, I overheard a couple of teachers talking with each other. "Don't worry about test scores," she said, "that would be great if our jobs didn't depend on them."

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