Understanding Middle School Testing Practices

Navigating the world of school tests in Shanghai.

by SHFamily | Fri, May 19, 2017

by Ryan Edward Kalb

Schools and tests are essential bedfellows in the educational experience. In US schools, state and federal level examinations begin at the primary level, with a school’s performance at times leading to potentially serious results.

International standards

American federal mandates such as Bush’s No Child Left Behind tie the allocation of federal educational funds to individual schools’ nationwide test performance, creating a “high-stakes” testing culture whereby educators often must teach to the test. Perhaps the pinnacle of this testing culture is the College Board, the global institution responsible for the AP curriculum, the renowned SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test), and its corresponding SAT subject tests.

Similarly, education in China has traditionally been heavily test-based, with some local schools and their international divisions faithfully administering written pen and pencil examinations every three – four weeks. One silver-lining is that data suggests students deriving from such systems may be better prepared to face tests.

Indeed, educational testing conducted by the Office for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in the form of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), consistently demonstrates major mainland Chinese cities such as Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou and Chinese regions such as Hong Kong and Taipei. All perform markedly above the OECD average; all land within the top ten of the 72 participating developed countries. However, the practice of taking tests is occurring ever earlier in the adolescent years, sometimes as young as the age of ten.

Is this stressful experience a necessary evil in order to glean valuable student data, and if so, is such practice healthy at young ages?

Why all the tests?

According to a given educational institution, its associated curriculum and level of state support, tests in lower secondary school vary greatly. Whether the British-sponsored International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE), International Baccalaureate Middle Year Programme (IBMYP), and in some cases, the Chinese Zhongkao (high school entrance examination) at bilingual institutions, are all mainstays at the end of the middle school years in order to test readiness for admission into the rigors of secondary school programs. These are all in addition to the veritable litany of individual tests and projects – often referred to as performance tasks to measure student mastery of skills and learning – within core subject areas that all students tackle at the early adolescent phase for the first time as discrete courses.

The main reason for assessment in general middle school is to track student progress. This sort of testing slowly builds up to the rigors of secondary school testing.

“We feel that we would be doing the students a disservice if we did not prepare them fully for the examination-based nature of the IGCSE subjects in Year 11 and beyond.”

Graeme Littler, Director of Studies at the Harrow International School Shanghai.

As such, this experience allows students to become accustomed to tests as part and parcel of the modern educational experience.

“Pastorally it is also important to help students learn how to cope with stress as well as exploring the many means of accessing support.”

Jonathan Horsnell, Head of Prep School, at Harrow International School Shanghai.

Taking Horsnell’s advice, students can view such challenges as potential opportunities to learning how to adapt and overcome.

Teachers and tutors

Most reputable international educational institutions are invested in providing a deeper and more meaningful education, rather than just rote learning in order to pass a test. Horsnell continues, “We look to teach skills that can be used throughout a student’s life and to back that up with an understanding of why they are learning about a particular topic.”

The emphasis here is twofold: first, mastery of a skill – through its successful application in authentic, new and related circumstances; and second, the reasons underpinning it – learning about learning, or metacognition – is true and lifelong learning. Unfortunately, limitations of tests as such do not adequately measure these important skills.

Nevertheless, subject teachers can prepare students for these in other ways. A common pedagogical practice is “review packets” that focus on student retention of discrete skills, which can help students adequately prepare for tests while being focused on those aforementioned skills, rather than just rote memorization. Furthermore, at most educational institutions, examination tips and techniques are provided to students by subject teachers. It must furthermore be underscored that testing accommodations can always be made for students that have an identified, specific learning need.

Test-prep via external, private tutors can be effective and is increasingly becoming the norm. However, if not done the right way, it can actually be potentially problematic by lulling students into complacency. Moreover, there is added danger of students becoming reliant on such additional support. Littler asserts that, “Generally, the [school] subject teacher will know what is best in terms of examination preparation and I would always recommend talking to the school about how a private tutor may best be employed.”

Parents’ essential role

Predictably, extensive research demonstrates that the best thing a parent can do is to be supportive and not add to the stress children can experience when confronted with their first formal testing experience, even if it is only a mock exam. As Horsnell stresses, “the prefrontal cortex of the brain – the part we use to do deep thinking – does not work well under duress.” It is also a good idea for parents to seek out their child’s subject teachers; parents who take advantage of parent evenings or schedule individual appointments with teachers can help them learn a variety of ideas on how best to support their child.

Last but not least, trust in your child’s abilities. Any testing experience can be anxiety-inducing and daunting for a child, so being calm and understanding for a child serves them well. As Horsnell concludes, students should, “be prepared to make mistakes – and learn from them!”

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