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Standardized tests: Finland’s education system vs. the U.S.
Finland and the U.S. have chosen opposing answers to the question of how much standardized testing is too much.
- Imperial China developed the first standardized tests for bureaucratic hopefuls.
- Finland has all but done away with standardized tests, and its education system remains one of the best in the world.
- The United States relies heavily on these tests and scores lower than Finland in academic rigor, yet provides a more balanced educational system for boys and girls, as well as immigrants
Imperial China developed the world's first standardized tests. During the country's Tang dynasty, bureaucratic hopefuls took the jinshi exams to test their knowledge. This revolutionary education system became one of the first in the world to create a gentry class based on scholarly achievement, not heredity, leveling the social structure and creating unprecedent social mobility for the time.
Today, standardized tests continue to level the social playing field. Standardized testing provides a consistent measure for academic success, offer high-achieving students a way to prove themselves that is unbound by their social circumstances, and create an objective appraisal by which all schools can be compared.
Despite these potential benefits, many experts argue that education systems over rely on standardized testing for assessment. Such reliance can lead teachers to "teach to the test" and provide unfair advantages to communities that can afford better test prep. Standardized tests may also force students into superficial thinking — that is, simply copying answers compared with active, critical engagement of knowledge. And nonstop testing can overwhelm students with undue stress.
In short, how much is too much? That's a question every country's education system must answer, and Finland and the United States have chosen opposing answers. Finland's education system relies sparingly on standardizes tests, while the United States leans heavily on them.
Which system has benefited its students more? Let's find out.
Standardized tests and Finland's education system
In lieu of standardized testing, Finland uses teacher assessment to evaluate student progress, allowing more time for experimentation and play. Image source: Photo: U.S. Department of State via Flikr
Popular belief states that Finland doesn't use standardized tests. That's not strictly true, so this section will be a tad longer than anticipated.
Finland's education system has one major standardized test, the national matriculation examination. This test is taken by students at the end of their general upper secondary education and consists of four exams. Students must take a mother tongue language exam. They then select from the following subjects for their next three exams: mathematics, a foreign language, the second national language, and a general studies subject such as humanities or science.
General education students are required to complete the matriculation exam to secure their certificate, along with competition of their upper-secondary coursework. Finnish universities and universities of applied science then use the exam scores as part of their selection criteria. The universities may require other tests as part of their assessment, but this is on a school-by-school basis.
And that's about it. Finland's education system does not asses student learning in basic education with standardized testing. Instead, teachers receive general assessment guidelines and assess the students themselves. The Finnish system also encourages students to develop self-assessment skills and develop their own benchmarks for progress.
In lieu of the test, Finland's goal is "to support pupils' growth toward humanity and ethically responsible membership of society and to provide them with the knowledge and skills needed in life."
With that said, Finland does utilize a yearly test to assess school learning outcomes. These tests focus on either mathematics or the mother tongue and literature. Additional subjects like art and multiculturalism are also added depending on the ministry's objectives.
This may sound like standardized testing by another name, but there are some key differences. First, the tests are sample-based, not comprehensive. Second, the scores aren't used to assess the student's but the school, lessening the pressure on the participants. Finally, a school's score is not tied to funding or a country-wide ranking system. They are provided to the school administrators for evaluation and development.
Standardized tests in the U.S.
A student fills out a standardized test in the classic multiple-choice format. Image source:
Photo: Alberto G via Flickr
Summarizing any facet of the United States' education system is a trying task. That's because each state administrates its own education system through state-run departments but must follow federal mandates yet have broad autonomy as to how meet those policies and how to correct course if not up to standards.
It's like trying to fashion a national league for a sport with 50 official rule books. And the District of Columbia. And U.S. territories.
Even discussing something like the Common Core State Standards, an academic standards initiative designed to set standards for all U.S. students in math and language comprehension, results in long-winded conversations filled with foot notes and run-on sentences. Some states have adopted the standards, some have chosen not to, while others have implemented its policies piecemeal.
And Common Core is just one example of why summarizing any aspect of the U.S. education system will, at best, result in caricature. Still, we'll do our best.
At the federal level, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) governs education policy. This act repealed 2001's No Child Left Behind and amended the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). In turn, No Child Left Behind amended a whole gaggle of laws, including the ESEA. This is important because although the ESSA repealed No Child Left Behind, it left many of its mandates intact or modified them.
How the U.S. handles standardized tests was one of those mandates. No Child Left Behind emphasized annual standard tests for students from the third to eighth grade and again in their junior year. Since standardized tests are, well, standard, the goal was to judge the educational achievement of public schools on a level playing field. Each state had to administer the test to receive federal funding, though funding was not tied to a set standard.
The ESSA keep the emphasis on standardized testing, but gave each state "the sole discretion to develop and adopt its own challenging State academic standards, provided they meet the relevant statutory and regulatory requirements." The U.S. Department of Education, in turn, can provide feedback to states on their assessment system. Since the states have discretion, these tests will vary though most of them focus on mathematics and English language.
In addition to state tests, the U.S. also uses standardized tests for college admissions. These include the SAT and ACT, but some states implement their own. Texas has the Texas Higher Education Assessment test (THEA), and Florida has the Postsecondary Education Readiness Test (PERT).
Is the Finnish education system superior?
A graph showing the variation of student learning among OECD countries in the first PISA survey.
(Photo: OECD PISA database, 2003)
It's difficult to say; however, it seems clear that Finland's system works better for Finland than the U.S.'s works for the U.S.
The results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a worldwide survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), seem to bear this out. In 2000, the first PISA ranked Finland number one in education among participating OECD countries.
Since then, Finland has remained a top-performer in the triennial survey. Though it has slipped behind Singapore and Hong Kong, in the 2015 PISA survey, it continued to achieve better than OECD average in science, reading, and mathematics.
"When the sole purpose of education has become the exam, when the test is the be all end all of schooling, then something important has ended in our education system," said Tristram Hunt, former U.K. Shadow Education Minister, said at a debate on standardized tests. "Rigor matters, but the tyranny of the testing hall is not providing the knowledge, skills, social mobility, or fulfillment, dare I say even the happiness, our education system deserves. And as a result, we are failing to educate, to lead, to mold, and to bring out the best in our young people."
As for the United States, it remains a midweight contender. In the 2015 PISA survey, out of 35 OECD members, the U.S. ranked around average in science and reading and below average in math. While many facets of any country's education system affect its success, these results show that constant standardized tests are not improving the U.S.'s academic prowess.
With that said, standardized tests may be living up to one of their promises: creating a more level playing field.
"Alternative methods of assessment are bias [i.e., compared to tests]," Daisy Christodoulou, head of assessment at Ark, countered at the same debate. "They are systematically bias against some of the most disadvantaged peoples in our society, and they also systematically reinforce common stereotypes."
She notes that teacher assessments are rife with implicit biases, pointing to studies that show teacher assessments reinforce common stereotypes that can be weeded out through standardized tests.
PISA's findings suggest Finland's reliance on teacher assessments could be harming particular groups within its student body. While the country performs well academically, its equity rating lags. In 2015, the country scored below the OECD average for equity among boys and girls, as well as for immigrant students. The United States, on the other hand, performed around the average for equity among boys and girls, and better than the average for immigrant students.
In the end, Finland and the United States are distinct countries socially, culturally, and demographically. Finland has a population of 5.5 million, while New York City alone is home to 8.6 million souls. And the entire country is roughly 30,000 square miles smaller than California. It many ways, comparing the two education systems is comparing apples to lingonberries. Add to this the fact that a fair, accurate, and unbiased assessment of something as complex as learning is no easy task.
However, Finland's successes lead one to the conclusion that the U.S. should adopt some of that country's pedagogical methods — namely, not leaning so hard on the standardized test. Then again, Finland may want to consider a few additional tests if it truly wants to create an equal playing field for all its citizens.
- 10 reasons Finland's education system is the best - Big Think ›
- The insane problem of US standardized testing - Big Think ›
Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.
Why do so many people encounter beings after smoking large doses of DMT?
- DMT is arguably the most powerful psychedelic drug on the planet, capable of producing intense hallucinations.
- Researchers recently surveyed more than 2,000 DMT users about their encounters with 'entities' while tripping, finding that respondents often considered these strange encounters to be positive and meaningful.
- The majority of respondents believed the beings they encountered were not hallucinations.
What are DMT beings?<p>Do DMT entities actually exist in some other dimension, or are they hallucinations that the brain generates when its visual processing system is overwhelmed by a powerful tryptamine?<br></p><p>The late American ethnobotanist Terence McKenna believed that DMT beings — which he called "machine elves" — were real. Here's how he once <a href="https://www.ranker.com/list/dmt-machine-elves-facts/inigo-gonzalez" target="_blank">described</a> one of his DMT experiences:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I sank to the floor. I [experienced] this hallucination of tumbling forward into these fractal geometric spaces made of light and then I found myself in the equivalent of the Pope's private chapel and there were insect elf machines proffering strange little tablets with strange writing on them, and I was aghast, completely appalled, because [in] a matter of seconds... my entire expectation of the nature of the world was just being shredded in front of me. I've never actually gotten over it.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">These self-transforming machine elf creatures were speaking in a colored language which condensed into rotating machines that were like Fabergé eggs but crafted out of luminescent superconducting ceramics and liquid crystal gels. All this stuff was just so weird and so alien and so un-English-able that it was a complete shock — I mean, the literal turning inside out of [my] intellectual universe!"</p><p>McKenna believed machine elves exist in alternate realities, which form a "<a href="https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/old-favourites-the-archaic-revival-1991-by-terence-mckenna-1.3924887" target="_blank">raging universe of active intelligence that is transhuman, hyperdimensional, and extremely alien.</a>" But he was far from the first to believe that DMT is a doorway to other realms.</p><p>Indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin have used ayahuasca in religious ceremonies for centuries, though no one is quite sure when they first started experimenting with the psychedelic brew. The Jibaro people of the Ecuadorian rainforest believed ayahuasca allowed regular people, not just shamans, to <a href="https://atrium.lib.uoguelph.ca/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10214/17902/RichardsonG_202004_HonThesis.pdf?sequence=3" target="_blank">speak directly to the gods</a>. The 19th-century Ecuadorian geographer Villavicencio wrote of other Amazonian shamans who used ahaysuca (known as the "vine of the dead") to contact spirits and foresee enemy battle plans.</p><p>In the West, research on DMT experiences has been sparse yet interesting. The psychiatrist Rick Strassman conducted some of the first human DMT trials at the University of New Mexico in the early 1990s. He found that <a href="https://www.erowid.org/chemicals/dmt/dmt_article3.shtml" target="_blank">"at least half"</a> of his research subjects had encountered some form of entity after taking DMT.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I was neither intellectually nor emotionally prepared for the frequency with which contact with beings occurred in our studies, nor the often utterly bizarre nature of these experiences," Strassman wrote in his book "DMT The Spirit Molecule".</p>
Manuel Medir / Getty<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Whenever I tried to pull any information out of the entities regarding themselves, the data that was given up was always relevant only to me. The elves could not give me any piece of data I did not already know, nor could their existence be sustained under any kind of prolonged scrutiny."</p><p>It's also worth noting that not all people who smoke DMT see beings, and that some see beings that look <a href="https://www.erowid.org/chemicals/dmt/dmt_article3.shtml" target="_blank">nothing like elves or aliens</a>. The diversity of these reports seems to count against the argument that DMT beings exist in some objective alternate reality.</p><p>In other words, if DMT beings exist in some other dimension, shouldn't they appear the same to anyone who visits that dimension? Or do the beings assume a different appearance based on who's looking? Or are there many types of beings in the DMT universe, but most look like elves? </p><p>You might start seeing elves just trying to sort this stuff out.</p><p>Ultimately, nobody knows exactly why DMT beings take the forms they do, or whether they're just figments of overstimulated imaginations. And the answers might be beside the point. </p><p>In the recent survey, 60 percent of participants said their encounter with DMT beings "produced a desirable alteration in their conception of reality whereas only 1% indicated an undesirable alteration in their conception of reality."</p><p>DMT beings may be nothing more than projections of the subconscious mind. But these bizarre encounters do help some people find real meaning, whether it's through personal revelation or the raw power of ontological shock.</p>
So far, 30 student teams have entered the Indy Autonomous Challenge, scheduled for October 2021.
- The Indy Autonomous Challenge will task student teams with developing self-driving software for race cars.
- The competition requires cars to complete 20 laps within 25 minutes, meaning cars would need to average about 110 mph.
- The organizers say they hope to advance the field of driverless cars and "inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>Completing the race in 25 minutes means the cars will need to average about 110 miles per hour. So, while the race may end up being a bit slower than a typical Indy 500 competition, in which winners average speeds of over 160 mph, it's still set to be the fastest autonomous race featuring full-size cars.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"There is no human redundancy there," Matt Peak, managing director for Energy Systems Network, a nonprofit that develops technology for the automation and energy sectors, told the <a href="https://www.post-gazette.com/business/tech-news/2020/06/01/Indy-Autonomous-Challenge-Indy-500-Indianapolis-Motor-Speedway-Ansys-Aptiv-self-driving-cars/stories/202005280137" target="_blank">Pittsburgh Post-Gazette</a>. "Either your car makes this happen or smash into the wall you go."</p>
Illustration of the Indy Autonomous Challenge
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>The Indy Autonomous Challenge <a href="https://www.indyautonomouschallenge.com/rules" target="_blank">describes</a> itself as a "past-the-post" competition, which "refers to a binary, objective, measurable performance rather than a subjective evaluation, judgement, or recognition."</p><p>This competition design was inspired by the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge, which tasked teams with developing driverless cars and sending them along a 150-mile route in Southern California for a chance to win $1 million. But that prize went unclaimed, because within a few hours after starting, all the vehicles had suffered some kind of critical failure.</p>
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>One factor that could prevent a similar outcome in the upcoming race is the ability to test-run cars on a virtual racetrack. The simulation software company Ansys Inc. has already developed a model of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on which teams will test their algorithms as part of a series of qualifying rounds.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We can create, with physics, multiple real-life scenarios that are reflective of the real world," Ansys President Ajei Gopal told <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/autonomous-vehicles-to-race-at-indianapolis-motor-speedway-11595237401?mod=e2tw" target="_blank">The Wall Street Journal</a>. "We can use that to train the AI, so it starts to come up to speed."</p><p>Still, the race could reveal that self-driving cars aren't quite ready to race at speeds of over 110 mph. After all, regular self-driving cars already face enough logistical and technical roadblocks, including <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-53349313#:~:text=Tesla%20will%20be%20able%20to,no%20driver%20input%2C%20he%20said." target="_blank">crumbling infrastructure, communication issues</a> and the <a href="https://bigthink.com/paul-ratner/would-you-ride-in-a-car-thats-programmed-to-kill-you" target="_self">fateful moral decisions driverless cars will have to make in split seconds</a>.</p>But the Indy Autonomous Challenge <a href="https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5da73021d0636f4ec706fa0a/t/5dc0680c41954d4ef41ec2b2/1572890638793/Indy+Autonomous+Challenge+Ruleset+-+v5NOV2019+%282%29.pdf" target="_blank">says</a> its main goal is to advance the industry, by challenging "students around the world to imagine, invent, and prove a new generation of automated vehicle (AV) software and inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
A new Harvard study finds that the language you use affects patient outcome.
- A study at Harvard's McLean Hospital claims that using the language of chemical imbalances worsens patient outcomes.
- Though psychiatry has largely abandoned DSM categories, professor Joseph E Davis writes that the field continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system."
- Chemical explanations of mental health appear to benefit pharmaceutical companies far more than patients.
Challenging the Chemical Imbalance Theory of Mental Disorders: Robert Whitaker, Journalist<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="41699c8c2cb2aee9271a36646e0bee7d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/-8BDC7i8Yyw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>This is a far cry from Howard Rusk's 1947 NY Times editorial calling for mental healt</p><p>h disorders to be treated similarly to physical disease (such as diabetes and cancer). This mindset—not attributable to Rusk alone; he was merely relaying the psychiatric currency of the time—has dominated the field for decades: mental anguish is a genetic and/or chemical-deficiency disorder that must be treated pharmacologically.</p><p>Even as psychiatry untethered from DSM categories, the field still used chemistry to validate its existence. Psychotherapy, arguably the most efficient means for managing much of our anxiety and depression, is time- and labor-intensive. Counseling requires an empathetic and wizened ear to guide the patient to do the work. Ingesting a pill to do that work for you is more seductive, and easier. As Davis writes, even though the industry abandoned the DSM, it continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system." </p><p>That language has infiltrated public consciousness. The team at McLean surveyed 279 patients seeking acute treatment for depression. As they note, the causes of psychological distress have constantly shifted over the millennia: humoral imbalance in the ancient world; spiritual possession in medieval times; early childhood experiences around the time of Freud; maladaptive thought patterns dominant in the latter half of last century. While the team found that psychosocial explanations remain popular, biogenetic explanations (such as the chemical imbalance theory) are becoming more prominent. </p><p>Interestingly, the 80 people Davis interviewed for his book predominantly relied on biogenetic explanations. Instead of doctors diagnosing patients, as you might expect, they increasingly serve to confirm what patients come in suspecting. Patients arrive at medical offices confident in their self-diagnoses. They believe a pill is the best course of treatment, largely because they saw an advertisement or listened to a friend. Doctors too often oblige without further curiosity as to the reasons for their distress. </p>
Image: Illustration Forest / Shutterstock<p>While medicalizing mental health softens the stigma of depression—if a disorder is inheritable, it was never really your fault—it also disempowers the patient. The team at McLean writes,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"More recent studies indicate that participants who are told that their depression is caused by a chemical imbalance or genetic abnormality expect to have depression for a longer period, report more depressive symptoms, and feel they have less control over their negative emotions."</p><p>Davis points out the language used by direct-to-consumer advertising prevalent in America. Doctors, media, and advertising agencies converge around common messages, such as everyday blues is a "real medical condition," everyone is susceptible to clinical depression, and drugs correct underlying somatic conditions that you never consciously control. He continues,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Your inner life and evaluative stance are of marginal, if any, relevance; counseling or psychotherapy aimed at self-insight would serve little purpose." </p><p>The McLean team discovered a similar phenomenon: patients expect little from psychotherapy and a lot from pills. When depression is treated as the result of an internal and immutable essence instead of environmental conditions, behavioral changes are not expected to make much difference. Chemistry rules the popular imagination.</p>