The Joel Spring Library

Commentary on Current Events in Education

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regarding national tests. Please post them on the message board for this web site!

The New Mandarin Society?
Testing on the Fast Track

Joel Spring

The political lines are drawn for support of 'voluntary' fourth and eight grade national math and reading tests. President Clinton and members of the Department of Education are working overtime to gain Congressional support. Six states and 15 of the largest urban school districts have already agreed to administer the tests. Latino groups object to the tests because students who speak English as a second language will be at a disadvantage, the religious right objects to federal control, and conservatives object to the cost and content of the tests.(1)

The Latino community raises important concerns regarding language issues. They are important because the tests will probably be used for ability grouping, tracking, and for determining graduation standards. Most students taking tests in a second language are at a disadvantage to those students taking the same tests in their first language. In other words, native-born English speakers will have an advantage. Will these tests be biased regarding culture and language? For instance, Should there be a Spanish version of these tests? Is it possible to create tests that are free of cultural bias?

The tests will create a uniform curriculum. Teachers will probably teach to the test. The tests involve the standardization of knowledge and the creation of standards regarding what students should know. The religious right is concerned that the tests will reflect moral and social values that are contrary to their religious beliefs. This raises the question, Whose values should be reflected in national tests? The religious right's objections raise important issues about the academic value and the ideological content of national tests.

Conservatives raise the question of what instructional methodologies should be represented in national tests. This is the central issue in an editorial debate appearing in the August 11, 1997 New York Times. Conservative Lynne Cheney criticizes the content of the proposed national math tests in an article with the descriptive title "Once Again, Basic Skills Fall Prey To a Fad."(2) Favoring rote learning and drill in math instruction, Cheney writes, "a panel named recently to oversee the development of President Clinton's national test in mathematics is composed entirely of supporters of the math teachers' council [National Council of Teachers of Mathematics]."(3) Cheney's is concerned with the math council's support of a constructivist approach to math education. Responding to Cheney, Thomas Romberg, chairman of the commission on standards of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, defended the constructivist approach to math instruction. He states, "Mathematics . . . is a human activity involving the ability to represent quantitative and spatial relationships in a broad range of situations . . . [it] is also about making predictions, and interpreting results."(4)

Other questions are raised if one looks at the history of national examinations in China and Japan. In China, an examination system was established as early as 206 B.C. During the Tang Dynasty, 618 A.D. to 907 A.D., the examination system began to be used to select government officials. Functioning according to what I call the "whip" theory of learning, the extreme difficulty of the examinations required candidates to study for many years. There were three levels of examinations, with the second-level examination lasting for 9 days. During the 9-day written examination, the candidate lived in a small cell that provided no room for sleeping.

This Chinese examination system is blamed for the decay of Chinese society. It created a Mandarin class that stifled creativity and change. Timothy Reagan, quoting Raymond Dawson, points out how this system "failed to preserve the freshness and ingenuity of earlier days."(5) Also, since the test was based on Confucian values, the correct answers reflected a belief in the importance of obedience to the Emperor and of self-sacrifice for the good of society. Chinese historian Jacques Gernet concludes, "the examinations served to inculcate in those who sat for them the virtues of devotion and submission indispensable to the autocratic empire."(6)

Influenced by China and Confucianism, Japan has received similar criticisms for its national examination system, implemented in the 1960s. These national examinations ensure that teachers follow the state curriculum. Inevitably, teachers are forced to teach to the test. "Now," in the words of Teruhisa Horio, "through this new mechanism [national testing] for controlling teachers, the Ministry attempted to bring the remaining loose ends of educational freedom within the purview of its administrative control."(7) Testing is the key to state control of the curriculum and the implementation of human resource development.

The result is an examination system that determines the life chances of Japanese students. Students engage in juken senso or "examination preparation war." In addition to regular school preparation for the examinations, parents send their children to private cram schools. Jukus are privately operated neighborhood schools focusing on examination preparation. They operate outside the hours of regular schools. Parents send their children to a juku in the evenings, or on Saturdays or Sundays. In addition, there are commercially published Home Tests and drill books for practice at home. In keeping with the warlike terminology of examination preparation, ronin or masterless warriors who have failed university entrance examinations attend full day courses at yobiko schools. Yobiko schools are large enterprises, some enrolling as many 35,000 in branches across the country.

Teruhisa Horio quotes the following poem about a student's anxieties over testing.

Wishing I'd Been Born in the Primitive Age

End-of-month test--45 points.

Showed it to mother.

In a twinkling of the eye her face changed,

"What is this, such a terrible score."

Without warning into the closet

I am thrown.

"What, because of a piece or two of test paper?"

I, locked in the pitch-dark closet,

Cry out in a roar,

"If it's to be like this

I'd rather have been born in a primitive age

With no tests,

Where even Tarzan could do well."(8)

The Japanese examination system masks social and economic inequalities. In Japan, there is a direct relationship between family income, university attendance, and the status of the university attended. For all universities in the sample years 1965, 1970, and 1976, eight to nine percent of students were from families in the lowest 20 percent income strata. In contrast, 46 to 47 percent of the students were from families in the top 20 percent income strata. Forty-seven to fifty-six of private university students came from families in the top 20 percent income strata, while at national universities only 28 to 35 percent of the students came from families in the top 20 percent income strata. These figures suggest that the examination and school system reproduce social class. There is also a high degree of ethnic discrimination. Japan has several indigenous ethnic groups, including Okinawans, Ainus, and Brakumins, who are under represented in the university system. Koreans, who originally were brought to Japan to work in factories prior to World War II, are discriminated against in education and employment.(9)

Some Japanese criticize the examinations for promoting the memorization of facts as opposed to the cultivation of originality. For instance, Artist Beat Takeshi is proud that he did not attend a cram school and that he dropped out of college. He is equally proud that his son expressed a desire to drop out school. Despairing of the conformity required in schools, Takeshi directed a movie, "Kids Return," which gives a sympathetic portrayal of two students who skip class and extort money from other students. Commenting on the Japanese educational system, Takeshi said, "Those who are called the elite in Japan come straight up to Tokyo University, and it's as if they've just used a manual to study for the examinations all the way along. They can answer questions, but they can't ask them. The exam-taking process takes so much time in childhood that there is no time for anything else."(10)

The experiences of Japan and China, and the concerns of the religious right and the Latino community, raise a series of important questions about national testing in the United States.

  1. Will national tests reflect particular social and cultural values?
  2. Is it possible to create tests that are free of cultural bias?
  3. Will national tests discriminate against students who speak English as a second language?
  4. Will national tests discriminate according to the income level of the parents?
  5. Will national tests become important for determining the life-chances of students as they now do in Japan?
  6. Will cram schools flourish?
  7. Will national tests stifle creativity?
  8. Will national tests improve learning?

Again, I am asking the reader to please post any comments on national tests and the above questions on the message board for this web site. Thank You.


1. Millicent Lawton, "Feds Position National Tests on Fast Track," Education Week (6 August 1997), pp. 1, 34-35.

2. Lynne Cheney, "Once Again, Basic Skills Fall Prey To a Fad" The New York Times (11 August 1997), p. A15.

3. Ibid.

4. Thomas Romberg, "Mediocre Is Not Good Enough," The New York Times (11 August 1997), p. A15.

5. Timothy Reagan, Non-Western Educational Traditions (Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1996), p.85.

6. Ibid., p. 85.

7. Teruhisa Horio, Educational Though and Ideology in Modern Japan: State Authority and Intellectual Freedom (Tokyo" University of Tokyo Press, 1988) edited and translated by Steven Platzer, p. 215.

8. Quoted in Horio, p. 354.

9. Byron Marshall, Japanese Political Discourse on Education (San Francisco: Westview Press, 1994), pp. 228-233.

10. Nicholas D. Kristof, "Where Conformity Rules, Misfits Thrive," The New York Times (18 May 1997), Section 2, p. 43.

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