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Standardized test scores aren't everything

For the first time, mainland China participated in the Program for International Student Assessment. The 5,100 15-year-olds from Shanghai blew away the traditional front-runners.

In science China scored 575, followed by Finland (554), Hong Kong (549) and Singapore (542). In reading China led with 556, followed by Korea (539), Finland (536), Hong Kong (533) and Singapore (526). And in math China left everyone in the dust with its score of 600, followed by Singapore (562), Hong Kong (555) and Korea (546).

The 5,100 American students scored in the middle of the pack or lower: science (502), reading (500) and math (487).

Supporters of test taking responded predictably. Chester E. Finn Jr., a U.S. Department of Education official under President Reagan and rabid supporter of the No Child Left Behind law, was "stunned." Education Secretary Arne Duncan declared the results "a wake-up call." Educationists complained that China was selecting its elite against our average.

I visit China each summer. From Kunming to Xi'an, from Chongqing to Wuhan, from Beijing to Nanjing, China can field student teams that will outscore the rest of the world.

Twelve years ago in Xinxiang, at a high school across from Henan Normal University, I sat at the back of a class of honor students being drilled for the Biology Olympiad, an international competition China has dominated for decades. I watched students answer detailed rapid-fire questions on the biochemistry leading from DNA to protein production. It was memorization of detail well beyond what I have ever seen in American high school biology classes.

Experts cry out for a revival of our U.S. Sputnik-era educational push. We boosted teachers' content training when we woke up to find the Soviet Union first into space. Science teachers returned for academic year and summer institutes to substantially update their science knowledge. Emporia State University was a major hub for biology teacher retraining for teachers from across the nation.

Today any such Sputnik-era reform would be hijacked by the test makers, the online learning movement sponsored by the computer companies, the businessmen who want schoolwork to be pure job training, and the educationists who believe you don't have to know any content to teach.

The United States does need more and better science teachers to teach two to three times more science in K-12, a larger curriculum that would barely match that of other developed countries. We must abandon nonmetric units if we are ever to produce students who can speak the language of engineering and physics. And we need to restore professional curricular decision making to the science classroom teacher and stop all standardized external-to-class assessment.

In 2001, the Korean Ministry of Education staff looked at South Korea's first place in another international assessment and concluded: Big deal — we train our students to take tests, but we don't get Nobel Prizes. This observation has been taken to heart by China, Finland and Singapore. They are struggling to return the decision on what to teach, how to teach and when to teach to the teacher.

Yes, China blew the top off the international tests. But China has yet to win one science Nobel Prize for a Chinese scientist educated and researching in China. Americans have more than 270 Nobel prizes, with the American-born scientists educated by earlier teachers operating free from external tests and dictated curricula.

Perhaps we will succeed in standardizing a teach-to-the-test curriculum and reach the point where we can take first place in the international tests. But in training students to take tests, we lose the creativity to get Nobel Prizes.

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