Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

State Education and Standardised Testing

Written by johnleemk on 1:35:44 pm Aug 28, 2007.
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One interesting educational phenomenon is standardised testing. It exists in some form or another in virtually every education system in the world.

There are of course good reasons for this. We need to have some mechanism for comparing and benchmarking students in some objective manner. Individual grading systems for each school or territory are not reliable comparisons for beyond the area they are confined to.

Interestingly, it has occurred to me that there is a correlation between state control of education and the prevalence of standardised examinations.

The more the central government controls education, the more likely schools and students are to utilise and rely on standardised tests.

This certainly seems to be the case in Asia, where governments love to control and centralise their education systems — all the way from Japan to Singapore.

India is an exception — until a few decades ago, education was under the purview of state governments alone. Nevertheless, then and now (when the central government is now constitutionally permitted to handle education), there has been an emphasis on examinations; with the recent centralisation, nationally standardised exams have become a bit more common.

The Philippines inherited a largely decentralised education system from its American colonialist regime, but the central government did institute standardised tests; it has since abolished them.

In Europe, the situation is the same. Even Finland, which has one of the most successful (by virtually any measure) public education systems in the world, implements standardised testing.

But the interesting thing is that in all these countries, the reason standardised testing exists — sometimes to the point of fetishisation (as in South Korea and Singapore) — is because the government decreed it so.

I am an advocate of the government butting out of educational policy, except to subsidise education. Does this mean standardised testing should not exist?

I do not think so. Even in the United States, with its very decentralised education system, a standardised testing system for the nation exists — there must be some benchmark.

But here's the twist: the US has two competing standardised testing systems. That is the beauty of decentralisation, and reduced government intervention. The United Kingdom also has a number of examination boards competing amongst one another, although room for variation and innovation is reduced by government regulation.

People often complain that standardised tests and examinations are ineffective. But perhaps the reason for this is that those who set and mark the papers have become complacent? I have sat for examinations set by the Malaysian government, as well as tests set by the American College Board and the British Cambridge International Examinations board.

The latter two, which are subject to pressure from competition, have a markedly better assessment system. It is far from perfect (if you ask me, standardised testing is one of the worst ways to assess students), but it is still relatively better than the government-monopolised Malaysian system.

Personally, I would view the decentralised American system as the way to go. In university admissions there, individual school grades as well as nationally centralised standardised tests are roughly equal in importance; neither variable is given excess weightage.

This is the kind of system that would probably exist, given a lack of government intervention in assessment systems. Is it ideal? Maybe, maybe not. But it seems to me that this is one of the better ways to evaluate students — considering both grades as well as standardised scores, and creating a competitive environment for different means of evaluating both assessments.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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