Education Myth: American Students are Over-Tested

Among OECD nations, the U.S. administers fewer standardized tests and even fewer other assessments

Andreas Schleicher, an international education expert based in Paris, attended a summit at the White House last month, and left feeling frustrated by the anti-testing backlash in this country.

“I listened to several presentations. You got this impression, if they would only get rid of tests, everything would improve,” said Schleicher, who overseas the education and skills directorate at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). “That certainly isn’t the bottleneck for improvement. The U.S. is not a country of heavy testing.”

That last statement would shock many parents and activists who believe the opposite. But according to Schleicher’s reading of the data from more than 70 countries, most nations give their students more standardized tests than the United States does. He notes that the Netherlands, Belgium and Asian countries — all high-performing education systems — administer a lot more. “In many countries there is a test going on every month,” he added.

The data come from student and teacher surveys given alongside international exams known as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), given to 15-year-olds around the world. Along with the exam questions, they were asked how frequently they are given standardized tests, for example.

More than a third of 15-year-olds in the Netherlands said they took a standardized test at least once a month. In Israel, more than a fifth said they took a monthly standardized test. In the United States, only 2 percent of students said they took standardized tests this frequently, well below the OECD average of 8 percent.

Annual tests are common the world over. Roughly 97 percent of 15-year olds in the United States said they took a standardized test once or twice a year — about the same share as in Finland, a country that’s famous for not relying on standardized testing.

But when it comes to testing more often than that, the data can be inconsistent. For example, across all the OECD countries, 17 percent of students said they took a standardized test at least three to five times a year. For this particular interval, the United States was well above the average, with 40 percent of American students saying that they took a standardized test this often. But having analyzed all the survey answers as a whole, Schleicher confidently says that the U.S. ranks “just below average” when in the frequency of standardized tests.

Unfortunately, the data are unpublished, and were collected in 2009. But the White House summit provoked Schleicher to write about the figures in a Nov. 18, 2015,  blog post, “Are American students overtested? Listen to what students themselves say.” Fresh 2015 data is being collected this month and won’t be available until next year. But Schleicher doesn’t expect to see any dramatic changes. “There was an increase in standardized testing early in the 2000’s in the U.S.. Since then, we haven’t seen any significant changes,” he said.

Of course, there are new tests in United States to see how well students are learning the new Common Core standards. But these new tests simply replaced old ones and aren’t administered any more frequently.

Beyond standardized tests, the survey data also covers other types of student assessments, from traditional tests that teachers create, to essays, projects and portfolios. Strikingly, the United States ranks toward the bottom in each of these other assessment categories. In other words, U.S. teachers don’t write their own tests as often as teachers do in other nations. And U.S. students aren’t graded on their writing or projects as often as students elsewhere. In Finland, by contrast, student portfolios are frequently evaluated.

“There doesn’t seem to be a strong culture of assessment in the U.S.,” said Schleicher. “When it’s done, it generally comes from the outside,” from standardized-test makers. “I would argue that many forms of assessment are important for improving learning and for understanding where students are,” he concluded.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

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Jill Barshay

Jill Barshay is the founding editor and writer of Education By The Numbers, The Hechinger Report's blog about education data.