By the virtue of being generations apart, parents and children perceive most life experiences differently. And yet, the sheer stress and pressure of preparing for a standardized test are experienced collectively by families around the world.
This exhausting intensity of the standardized testing experience is a burden that is widely accepted in the world of education due to the popular belief that its rewards are well worth the grueling effort. It is often considered a rigorous but important ‘rite of passage’ for students and is believed to be directly reflective of a student’s knowledge, proficiencies and educational progress. The higher the scores, the more likely that a student will succeed in education and in life - or so goes the belief.
However, in recent years, a number of educators and industry leaders have been vocal in their criticism against this long-held belief. Not only are they challenging the efficacy of standardized tests but are raising important questions about whether education at large needs standardized testing at all.
“I’ve had so many conversations with educators around the world who believe that standardized testing is a broken, outdated system that must be gotten rid of,” says Pia Jormalainen, co-founder and CEO at New Nordic School. “It causes unnecessary suffering during the educational experience and is designed primarily to benefit institutions rather than students”.
Standardized testing serves industrialization
While the existence of schools can be traced as far back as 2000 BCE, standardized testing as we know it today is still fairly recent - less than 200 years old - and was primarily created to meet the demands of early industrialization, not education.
“Standardized testing first came about as a way for industries to set worker standards and sift through a large pool of candidates for newly created jobs,” Pia explains. “It served this purpose at the time and has been effective in certain other contexts. But its effectiveness does not apply to the purposes of education. We simply continue to use standardized testing because we don't consider any other way of going about it - an unfortunate ‘stick with what we know’ approach.”
As a mother to two school-age children, Pia has a multifaceted perspective on why standardized tests prove to be a futile endeavor for both students and society at large.
“Standardized tests are and have always been merely a measure of students’ test-taking skills - their ability to memorize and reiterate knowledge. But in the world we live in today, knowledge in all forms is widely and easily accessible! So, we should really be educating students about the tools and skills they need to find the information they require rather than testing them on how well they can memorize that information,” says Pia.
But prioritizing a skill that is no longer relevant in today’s changing information landscape is only one of the many failings of the standardized testing system. Despite the weeks and months that students spend each year taking and preparing for standardized tests, the system leaves them woefully unprepared for the demands of the future.
This is because, as Pia elaborates, standardized testing fails to take into account the core skills - the ‘standards’ - that truly matter in the long run. Research has shown that developing transversal competencies - such as creativity, communication, critical thinking and collaboration — are crucial for a student’s educational development and eventually, their professional growth.
“In your educational journey and career, your success will be achieved by so much more than just memorizing or acquiring information. It will be achieved by being able to analyze that information, knowing how to effectively communicate and distribute it, using it to collaborate with your peers, and finding creative and innovative solutions with it. There is no standardized test that can truly determine the skills required to do any of these,” Pia explains.
How does Finland’s education system measure student progress?
All of this, then, begs the question: what is the alternative? Even in the absence of standardized testing, education systems and institutions will continue to require effective methods that can track and reflect the educational progress of students. To these requirements, Pia offers solutions that are simple, holistic and far less stressful than a standardized testing experience.
“In the Finnish education system, a student’s progress is tracked not through a single, weighty test-taking experience but rather smaller, simpler ones along the way. These tests help in reviewing and recapping lessons and can also be retaken if needed, which removes any pressure from the situation and makes tests a friendlier and more natural part of the educational experience,” she says.
As opposed to being subjected to rigorous forms of testing and educational practices, these frequent but shorter quizzes provide students with a far better understanding of the knowledge they’ve acquired. “Most importantly, their joy of learning is nurtured instead of being bogged down by the anxiety of ‘a big test’ looming over their heads all the time,” explains Pia.
Apart from this gentler and far more effective approach to tracking educational progress, the Finnish education system also places considerable value on the development of transversal competencies throughout its curriculum and educational practices. Taking cues from such approaches, Pia and her peers have developed their own purposeful and research-driven educational experience at New Nordic School that centers itself around building core competencies and essential skills rather than focusing on the testing experience.
“I know that most parents would love for their children to attend schools where there are no standardized tests and therefore, no pressure on either the children or themselves in that regard. But if the education systems within which the schools operate don't change, it can be difficult to have faith,” says Pia.
“On our part, we try to ensure that the learning process for a child is one that will not only make them academically competent and prepared for the future but that will also allow them to have fun along the way and find true joy in the process of learning.”