Taiwanese students take too many tests. Exams dominate education in Taiwan to the point of being detrimental, and not just to students. Not only does Taiwan’s testing culture cause profound stress in students and dilutes the significance of major tests, but it also smothers critical thinking and creativity. Furthermore, teaching to the test, as a rule, breeds an educational system that places too high a value on test scores to the detriment of intellectual growth.
In short, students deserve better than constant testing, and moving away from test-centric curricula will not only make academic life better for Taiwanese students, but also improve capacities for critical analysis, creativity, and intellectual confidence.
Why testing is so important in Taiwan
Before we get into why a test-centered system is bad for learners, it’s worth exploring why testing is so heavily emphasized in Taiwan and Asia.
If you really want to dig, testing culture in Asia began during the Tang Dynasty over 1000 years ago with the advent of the Imperial Examination system in China. This was a civil service system meant to improve imperial governance by selecting leaders based on merit as opposed to heredity. The Imperial Examination was co-opted by surrounding peoples whom Chinese culture influenced, including Korea, Vietnam, and even Japan for a time. It’s not a stretch to assert that a millennium of academic success being predicated on exam performance would have an effect on modern academic culture.
Another important feature of tests and why they are so widely employed both in Asia and around the world, is that they are an easy way to hold teachers and schools accountable, due to the ease of understanding test outcomes. Test scores are an easy number to comprehend – the higher the number, the better the student, right? And the more high scoring students, the better the teacher, the class, the school, whatever.
Test scores are simple, tangible, and easy to explain. No commentary is needed and with an “objective” number attached to student performance, students can then be ranked and teachers and administrators can place students in classes or on academic tracks that reflect their performance.
However, none of these reasons for building curricula around tests actually justifies a test-based educational system.
Tests stress students out
If you’ve ever worked with a high school student, either as a teacher or parent, you know how stressful tests are to them.
We know, school is supposed to be hard, and even sometimes stressful, but it is also important to look at the research and the big picture. In Taiwan, suicide is one of the largest killers for people aged 15-24, with much of the motivation behind teen suicide coming from academic stress. And when asked directly, Taiwanese students frequently site testing as one of the main drawbacks to being a student:
- Testing in Taiwan
- 5 Reasons why high school entrance exams are awful
- Why tests are an evil instrument of torture
- 5 reasons why Taiwan’s education drives students nuts
Yes, teenagers love to complain about school, and tests are stressful for everyone, but at some point it’s necessary to listen to the kids, especially when they all agree, and even more so when the research agrees with them.
Too many tests are bad
Ironically, debates about testing, especially standardized testing, rage cross both Europe and the United States, where students take a much smaller amount of exams on average. Diane Ravitch, a top education researcher and educator, finds America’s growing testing culture to not only be excessive, but “destructive” to the minds of students.
“None of the characteristics that are important for thriving in the world of the twenty-first century are encouraged by standardized testing. In fact, they’re all squashed. So we’re doing something that is, actually, long term, harmful to children’s brains.”
With such strong skepticism about the value of constant testing coming out of the West, it is only reasonable to assume that Asia’s test-centric educational culture is downright nefarious. It produces mediocre thinkers and encourages plagiarism and shoddy work, but if these were inevitable byproducts of a rigorous educational system it might be acceptable; it is true, East Asian nations rank among the top in the world according to international test results.
In the U.S., researchers often point to East Asian nations as strong examples of high academic achievement. American students perform poorly on standardized tests, while students from Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, China, and Taiwan do very well. But of course students in Asia do well on tests – that is what they are trained most to do. The issue is, test scores are not a strong measure of future earning potential, happiness, or preparedness for elite universities. Furthermore, if testing-based systems were so productive, why aren’t the best academics produced by them, and why can’t Chinese universities compete, even with massive investment?
Finally, with so many exams, the whole curriculum becomes about teaching to the test, which is exactly backwards for how education ought to operate. If we want students to be good at filling in blanks and devising strategies for parsing trivia, then perhaps Taiwan’s educational system is perfect; it seems, however, that what modern societies need from students is critical thinking skills, creativity, and a capacity for independent thought.
How to develop students
Okay then, if chronic testing is so bad, there needs to be an alternative. We have three main strategies: writing and critical analysis training, greater teacher autonomy, and, at the risk of being too provocative, assigning students less work.
1. Writing and critical analysis training
One of the worst things about tests is how limiting they are in terms of options. If you take a multiple choice test, there is only one correct answer, and only a few options total. Teaching students to write instead forces students to consider a limitless number of answers and infinite choices for how to present their response.
If students need to write in class, as opposed to answering test questions, they are employing not just the facts they’ve absorbed, but also strategies for framing this information and developing the empathic skills to determine what the audience – the teacher – might be looking for. Possible answers are all over the map, and features like imagination and creativity help writers stand out.
Furthermore, teaching students both how to read critically and to write forces them to analyze questions, literature, and their own thoughts, which in turn develop those all-valuable critical analysis skills as well as engender independence of thought.
Testing teaches students how to solve simple problems and how to memorize information. While these are important academic skills, they are less valuable than the skills we teach at Englist and Taipei Teen Tribune: critical thinking, analysis, independence of thought, and creativity.
2. Let strong teachers tailor classes to their students
As mentioned earlier, part of the reason tests are so popular is their capacity for not only providing a snapshot of student performance, but also for determining the capability of a teacher.
If teachers were not asked to give so many tests, would they still know how their classes are performing? Without government-mandated curriculum (designed around tests students need to pass), would teachers be as effective?
This all depends. If teachers are trained and treated as professionals, they become capable of managing their classrooms and curriculum without crippling and micromanaging oversight. If parents and the rest of society could trust that teachers know what the academic and intellectual needs are of their students, instead of having to focus on exams, teachers could customize their programs to fit the needs of a class.
More trust in teachers, developed by producing world-class educators, is key to ensuring student success and shedding the burden of test culture.
3. Less work
This final strategy might seem crazy to parents – students have so much they need to know, and only limited time to absorb it all, so they ought to spend 12 hours per day studying, even on the weekend, correct?
Taiwanese students are overworked, in part due to the sheer number of exams they need to take. Taiwanese students, on top of core classes like Chinese and math, then have any number of social studies and science courses, alongside English, as well as classes like Taiwanese, “design-thinking” – the list goes on. Then they have classes to prepare for all of these classes – the notorious buxiban – that everyone feels compelled to take in as many subjects as possible to get the elusive “leg up.” Then, in both their schools and buxibans, students have daily practice tests in most classes, weekly tests, unit and chapter assessments, semester “big tests” and then junior high, high school, and college entrance exams. This is insanity.
Instead, we should all take a page from the Finnish system. Finnish students don’t start getting homework until junior high and school days are significantly shorter. And, perhaps most significantly, instead of forcing students to take daily quizzes and tests, teachers are trusted to know what is going on with their students and classes.
The original purpose of tests
A synonym for “test” is the word “examination”. Both of these words mean to look and see if something, or someone, meets a given level of expectation or standard. By definition, the purpose of a test, exam, assessment, or quiz, is to check how students are progressing. If most of a curriculum is a test of some kind, what are we even assessing anymore?
We agree that tests have their place, and it is occasionally necessary examine student progress in a systematized method. However, Taiwan’s academic culture, through both a lack of creativity, stagnation, and the ever-increasing impulse to do more with less, has become riddled with time consuming and detrimental exams.
Before Barack Obama was the President of the United States, before he was a Senator, before he was a Congressman, community organizer, or financial researcher, he was a student. And a really good student at that; he was the President of the Harvard Law Review and an honor student at Columbia.
“When I look back on the great teachers who shaped my life, what I remember isn’t the way they prepared me to take a standardized test. What I remember is the way they taught me to believe in myself. To be curious about the world. To take charge of my own learning so that I could reach my full potential. To inspire me to open up a window into parts of the world I’d never thought of before. That’s what good teaching is. That’s what a great education is… Because learning is about so much more than filling in the right bubble.”
Too much testing is a problem. What Obama remembers is what Englist trying to accomplish for students. It is what all educational programs should be in the business of doing.