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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 ›
- Changing the way we grade students could trigger a wave of innovation - Big Think ›
- How will measuring school test scores change in the future? - Big Think ›
- Revolutionary K-12 education might be a creative incubator - Big Think ›
These alien-like creatures are virtually invisible in the deep sea.
- A team of marine biologists used nets to catch 16 species of deep-sea fish that have evolved the ability to be virtually invisible to prey and predators.
- "Ultra-black" skin seems to be an evolutionary adaptation that helps fish camouflage themselves in the deep sea, which is illuminated by bioluminescent organisms.
- There are likely more, and potentially much darker, ultra-black fish lurking deep in the ocean.
A team of marine biologists has discovered 16 species of "ultra-black" fish that absorb more than 99 percent of the light that hits their skin, making them virtually invisible to other deep-sea fish.
The researchers, who published their findings Thursday in Current Biology, caught the species after dropping nets more than 200 meters deep near California's Monterey Bay. At those depths, sunlight fizzles out. That's one reason why many deep-sea species have evolved the ability to illuminate the dark waters through bioluminescence.
But what if deep-sea fish don't want to be spotted? To counter bioluminescence, some species have evolved ultra-black skin that's exceptionally good at absorbing light. Only a few other species are known to possess this strange trait, including birds of paradise and some spiders and butterflies.
The Pacific blackdragon
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian
When researchers first saw the deep-sea species, it wasn't immediately obvious that their skin was ultra-black. Then, marine biologist Karen Osborn, a co-author on the new paper, noticed something strange about the photos she took of the fish.
"I had tried to take pictures of deep-sea fish before and got nothing but these really horrible pictures, where you can't see any detail," Osborn told Wired. "How is it that I can shine two strobe lights at them and all that light just disappears?"
After examining samples of fish skin under the microscope, the researchers discovered that the fish skin contains a layer of organelles called melanosomes, which contain melanin, the same pigment that gives color to human skin and hair. This layer of melanosomes absorbs most of the light that hits them.
A crested bigscale
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian
"But what isn't absorbed side-scatters into the layer, and it's absorbed by the neighboring pigments that are all packed right up close to it," Osborn told Wired. "And so what they've done is create this super-efficient, very-little-material system where they can basically build a light trap with just the pigment particles and nothing else."
The result? Strange and terrifying deep-sea species, like the crested bigscale, fangtooth, and Pacific blackdragon, all of which appear in the deep sea as barely more than faint silhouettes.
David Csepp, NMFS/AKFSC/ABL
But interestingly, this unique disappearing trick wasn't passed on to these species by a common ancestor. Rather, they each developed it independently. As such, the different species use their ultra-blackness for different purposes. For example, the threadfin dragonfish only has ultra-black skin during its adolescent years, when it's rather defenseless, as Wired notes.
Other fish—like the oneirodes species, which use bioluminescent lures to bait prey—probably evolved ultra-black skin to avoid reflecting the light their own bodies produce. Meanwhile, species like C. acclinidens only have ultra-black skin around their gut, possibly to hide light of bioluminescent fish they've eaten.
Given that these newly described species are just ones that this team found off the coast of California, there are likely many more, and possibly much darker, ultra-black fish swimming in the deep ocean.
Information may not seem like something physical, yet it has become a central concern for physicists. A wonderful new book explores the importance of the "dataome" for the physical, biological, and human worlds.
- The most important current topic in physics relates to a subject that hardly seems physical at all — information, which is central to thermodynamics and perhaps the universe itself.
- The "dataome" is the way human beings have been externalizing information about ourselves and the world since we first began making paintings on cave walls.
- The dataome is vast and growing everyday, sucking up an ever increasing share of the energy humans produce.
Physics is a field that is supposed to study real stuff. By real, I mean things like matter and energy. Matter is, of course, the kind of stuff you can hold in your hand. Energy may seem a little more abstract, but its reality is pretty apparent, appearing in the form of motion or gravity or electromagnetic fields.
What has become apparent recently, however, is the importance to physics of something that seems somewhat less real: information. From black holes to quantum mechanics to understanding the physics of life, information has risen to become a principal concern of many physicists in many domains. This new centrality of information is why you really need to read astrophysicist Caleb Scharf's new book The Ascent of Information: Books, Bits, Machines, and Life's Unending Algorithms.
Scharf is currently the director of the Astrobiology Program at Columbia University. He is also the author of four other books as well as a regular contributor to Scientific American.
(Full disclosure: Scharf and I have been collaborators on a scientific project involving the Fermi Paradox, so I was a big fan before I read this new book. Of course, the reason why I collaborated with him is because I really like the way he thinks, and his creativity in tackling tough problems is on full display in The Ascent of Information.)
What is the dataome?
In his new book, Scharf is seeking a deeper understanding of what he calls the "dataome." This is the way human beings have been externalizing information about ourselves and the world since we first began making paintings on cave walls. The book opens with a compelling exploration of how Shakespeare's works, which began as scribbles on a page, have gone on to have lives of their own in the dataome. Through reprintings in different languages, recordings of performances, movie adaptations, comic books, and so on, Shakespeare's works are now a permanent part of the vast swirling ensemble of information that constitutes the human dataome.
I found gems in these parts of the book that forced me to put the volume down and stare into space for a time to deal with their impact.
But the dataome does not just live in our heads. Scharf takes us on a proper physicist's journey through the dataome, showing us how information can never be divorced from energy. Your brain needs the chemical energy from food you ate this morning to read, process, and interpret these words. One of the most engaging parts of the book is when Scharf details just how much energy and real physical space our data-hungry world consumes as it adds to the dataome. For example, the Hohhot Data Center in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China is made of vast "farms" of data processing servers covering 245 acres of real estate. A single application like Bitcoin, Scharf tells us, consumes 7.7 gigawatts per year, equivalent to the output of half a dozen nuclear reactors!
Information is everywhere
But the dataome is not just about energy. Entropy is central to the story as well. Scharf takes the reader through a beautifully crafted discussion of information and the science of thermodynamics. This is where the links between energy, entropy, the limits of useful work, and probability all become profoundly connected to the definition of information.
The second law of thermodynamics tells us that you cannot use all of a given amount of energy to do useful work. Some of that energy must be wasted by getting turned into heat. Entropy is the physicist's way of measuring that waste (which can also be thought of as disorder). Scharf takes the reader through the basic relations of thermodynamics and then shows how entropy became intimately linked with information. It was Claude Shannon's brilliant work in the 1940s that showed how information — bits — could be defined for communication and computation as an entropy associated with the redundancy of strings of symbols. That was the link tying the physical world of physics explicitly to the informational and computational world of the dataome.
The best parts of the book are where Scharf unpacks how information makes its appearance in biology. From the data storage and processing that occurs with every strand of DNA, to the tangled pathways that define evolutionary dynamics, Scharf demonstrates how life is what happens to physics and chemistry when information matters. I found gems in these parts of the book that forced me to put the volume down and stare into space for a time to deal with their impact.
The physics of information
There are a lot of popular physics books out there about black holes and exoplanets and other cool stuff. But right now, I feel like the most important topic in physics relates to a subject that hardly seems physical at all. Information is a relatively new addition to the physics bestiary, making it even more compelling. If you are looking for a good introduction to how that is so, The Ascent of Information is a good place to start.
A new study tested to what extent dogs can sense human deception.
Is humanity's best friend catching on to our shenanigans? Researchers at the University of Vienna discovered that dogs can in certain cases know when people are lying.
The scientists carried out a study with hundreds of dogs to determine to what extent dogs could spot deception. The team's new paper, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, outlined experiments that tested whether dogs, like humans, have some inner sense of how to assess truthfulness.
As the researchers wrote in their paper, "Among non-primates, dogs (Canis familiaris) constitute a particularly interesting case, as their social environment has been shared with humans for at least 14,000 years. For this reason, dogs have been considered as a model species for the comparative investigation of socio-cognitive abilities." The investigation focused specifically on understanding if dogs were "sensitive to some mental or psychological states of humans."
The experiments involved 260 dogs, which were made to listen to advice from a human "communicator" whom they did not know. The human told them which one of two bowls had a treat hidden inside by touching it and saying, "Look, this is very good!" If the dogs took the person's advice, they would get the treat.
Once they established the trust of the dogs, the researchers then complicated the experience by letting dogs watch another human that they did not know transfer the treat from one bowl to another. In some cases, the original communicator would also be present to watch but not always.
The findings revealed that half of the dogs did not follow the advice of the communicator if that person was not present when the food was switched to a different bowl. The dogs had a sense that this human could not have known the true location of the treat. Furthermore, two-thirds of the dogs ignored the human's suggestion if she did see the food switch but pointed to the wrong bowl. The dogs figured out the human was lying to them.
Photos of experiments showing the dog, human communicator, and person hiding the treat. Credit: Lucrezia Lonardo et al / Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
"We thought dogs would behave like children under age five and apes, but now we speculate that perhaps dogs can understand when someone is being deceitful," co-author Ludwig Huber from the University of Vienna told New Scientist. "Maybe they think, 'This person has the same knowledge as me, and is nevertheless giving me the wrong [information].' It's possible they could see that as intentionally misleading, which is lying."
This is not the first time such experiments have been carried out. Previously, children under age five, macaques, and chimps were tested in a similar way. It turned out that children and other animals were more likely than dogs to listen to the advice of the liars. Notably, among the dogs, terriers were found to be more like children and apes, more eagerly following false suggestions.