Testing For Money Spent – Why Standardized Testing is Rigged

here_I_amI have a daughter who went to Kindergarten for several years and public school here in Seoul for eight years. She is smart, however, she had problems when she did her big exams. Her weekly scores were fair but the grades on the larger tests were horrible. I didn’t yell at her but her mother worked with her on some subjects, I bought science books and hired a tutor for her math and her scores improved over time.

This last January, I let her go to live with my sister in Nebraska (her aunt who shares the same birthday even) and after two months there, her scores went from a 56 (here) to a 99 percent!

I thought maybe American schools are teaching easier than Korean schools, which in many cases seems to be true since her middle-school classes would introduce subjects that I only got in high school myself, however I then ran across an article from the Atlantic that maintains standardized tests, in America, aren’t actual tests of knowledge but are branded products produced by textbook companies, and getting a good score depends on whether you bought the right books to study. It seems that many schools here in Korea pull their testing material straight from textbooks here, that have a vested interest in making $$$ and some teachers do get gifts from certain publishers, so . . . it turns out I have a smart daughter after all who will not end up working in Wallmart. I only wonder and worry about her friends here and so many other bright Korean kids that have to labour and suffer under this deliberately weighted variable, not to mention the high household debt 1 2 3 here in Korea – much of which is due to educational expenses to help these kids keep up and to study at the *right* places or the very high rate of suicide (the number one reason for death between the ages of 10 and 30) (cite), due to the stress of living. How much income is lost to average Korean households due to this system and how long will the system function before it flips over and sinks?

Update

A new opinion piece in the NY Times discusses the stresses upon Korean kids in being driven by their parents (if not mom) to excel in grades:

. . . She (mother) did not want me to suffer like my brother, who had a chest pain that doctors could not diagnose and an allergy so severe he needed to have shots at home.
I was fortunate that my mother recognized the problem and had the means to take me abroad. Most South Korean children’s parents are the main source of the unrelenting pressure put on students.

The opinion piece is here.

  • Kevin Kim

    “I have a daughter who went to Kindergarten for several years”

    Surely I’m not the first to wonder just how many years kindergarten lasts in Korea.

  • http://tesslerdavis.tumblr.com/ thejd

    I was wondering the same thing.

  • Sumo294

    R. Elgin can you explain this a bit further? I am genuinely interested in this subject. It seems to me that you were saying that your daughter actually has a wide and general knowledge in basic knowledge that were made manifest by American general testing but that in Korea’s more narrow focus in knowledge–your daughter’s test scores were deficient.

  • RElgin

    Depends when you start.

  • Bob Bobbs

    It starts before the fontanelle is closed, and goes until age 5 or so.

  • brier

    My son is in his third year of Kindergarten.

  • http://tesslerdavis.tumblr.com/ thejd

    This is confusing. The testing here is unfair so she did poorly, but then when she went to the States she did well, because the testing there is unfair?

    In the end, I am happy your daughter is doing well in school.

  • silver surfer

    So in America, doing well on standardized tests depends on buying the right textbooks. And in Korea, it … doesn’t? I’m confused.

  • http://tesslerdavis.tumblr.com/ thejd

    In Korea she was going to the wrong school (one that did not have the right textbooks) but in the States she’s at a good school (with good textbooks).

    The same companies make the textbooks and the tests. So, if you don’t have the right books, you’re not going to know the standard wording and other biases on the tests. It’s a conflict of interest, in the end, because it forces schools to buy books based on who’s making the tests, and which books are objectively best.

  • Anonymous_Joe

    “I thought maybe American schools are teaching easier than Korean schools, which in many cases seems to be true since her middle-school classes would introduce subjects that I only got in high school myself….

    Although you’re conclusion might be true, I have another hypothesis. I have found that subject matter gets taught to lower grades with each succeeding generation. For example, I learned more math as a non-math majoring undergraduate than my aunt who had a master’s in math from Berkeley.

    As a high school student, I was considered an elite student because I took calculus. I see that elite high school students now take linear algebra. I saw an episode of ST:TNG (I just outed my inner nerd), and fifth grade students were taking calculus, which at first struck me as ridiculous. Then I considered the possibility.

    In Newton’s time doctoral students learned the calculus (and actually a subset of it) that I learned in high school and learned it directly from Newton (or Leibniz) himself. Eventually those Ph.D.’s took university positions and taught that level of math to masters’ students. After math had advanced and enough masters’ holders got out, then Newton’s math level got taught at the undergraduate level. Some of those B.A. math grads became high school teachers, and they started teaching calculus to the top high school students. Standards evolved so that all high school math teachers had at least B.A.’s in math and the ability to teach calculus to top high school students.

    Those top high school students went to university prepared to take math classes higher than freshman calc, and those who became teachers also worked on their pedagogical techniques. Math teachers with math degrees who were better teachers, and voilà Viola, Wesley Crusher is learning calculus in fifth grade.

    In short (if not too late), I think you’ll find that American school kids are also ahead of what you learned in high school.

  • http://tesslerdavis.tumblr.com/ thejd

    And because the system is now set up to reward teachers and schools that produce good standardised test scores, every poor school is going to get less money and every rich school is going to get more.

  • bigmamat

    Oh yes…teaching to the test in a school with no books. Don’t I know all about this problem. Beginning in the 3rd grade students took standardized tests. My kids may have had 6 or 7 different subject in each school but were rarely issued more than 3 or 4 books. Often they were issued a book that they barely opened. Much of their work was done with printed hand outs often several pages. Starting in third grade right after Christmas they were given additional handouts that were to be learned by rote in preparation for the SOL (Standards of Learning) tests to be given at the end of the year. I noticed first in 3rd grade that many of the “facts” they were learning on these hand outs weren’t covered in the text book they had received or had not been discussed during the year at all. Too late to have helped my kids VA has decided they were giving too many tests. They have reduced the amount from 22 to 17.
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/virginia-students-will-take-fewer-standards-of-learning-tests-next-year/2014/04/05/eea18666-bb46-11e3-9a05-c739f29ccb08_story.html

  • RElgin

    This is one reason I posted this because I am still trying to understand how she could rank so lowly here yet emerge at the top in the states. I don’t think the school in the states is dumbing down the curriculum, instead, it appears the pace of instruction is slower or more gradual than here. Based upon the math alone, Korean schools test and teach at an accelerated pace that is like a test to destruction – only the truly gifted or those with the right cram school and books survive.
    The article, in the Atlantic, seems to support the contention that the testing system in Korea is fixed in favor of the hagwons, which have a BIG interest in keeping tests tricky enough to pressure parents into employing their services.

  • RElgin

    … which means the Americans are not really behind the level of education here.

  • RElgin

    I am baffled as to why there is such a marked difference.

  • http://www.bcarr.com/ Brendon Carr

    “Her mother”? Aw, nuts.

  • Aja Aja

    She got a 56% mark in Korea, but a 99% in America.
    Doesn’t this actually prove the other way, that tests in Korea are not fixed?

    I’m confused at your logic.

  • RElgin

    I suspect that the testing in Korea is the problem.

  • Aja Aja

    Tests in Korea are set up so that the takers are set up to fail?

    Still not understanding this….

  • Sumo294

    Elgin–I think you want to say something important–but it does not seem clear to me yet. My understanding is that hogwans are a free market response to the reality of the college placement test in Korea. Books seem to be a non-issue as they are the least costly component to education costs. You are alluding to some type of cultural contrast. My thinking so far is that you are saying that your child is a mediocre student in Korea but in America she is at the top of her class? Please clarify.

  • Anonymous_Joe

    I would take a suburban public school in my home state, and many other states, over any Korean public school.

    As far as the American educational system in general, I think it gets vastly underrated and done so by Americans, particularly those who have a financial interest in underrating it.

  • bigmamat

    I’m not sure you are correct when you suggest that books are not a costly component to education costs. Maybe in Korea they aren’t. I used to work for the procurement office that set up and negotiated the awards for the curriculum adoptions in the military dependent schools. These were multi million dollar long term contracts that spanned several years. Textbooks and disposable curriculum materials are not cheap. They may pale in comparison to teacher/administrative costs and infrastructure expenditures but textbooks and supplies become the “low hanging fruit” for schools when they need to cut costs. It isn’t a stretch to understand how bureaucracies begin slicing away at the bottom tier of their expenditures before they are forced to reach up for savings through more complicated measures. So for schools the first thing to go is stinky stickers and art supplies, sports equipment, lunch, textbooks and workbooks, then teachers/administrators, and finally closing or allowing schools to deteriorate.

  • redwhitedude

    Korean education needs some reforming and this is one big interest group has vested interest in keeping things the way they are. It’s really stupid to get people to spend ridiculous amount on education.

  • bigmamat

    There may be a combination of reasons why the writer’s child did better in the US. First, his child may be experiencing a difference in teaching methods. Just from what I read it appears that Korean teaching relies very strongly on individual motivation and rote learning. Even though American schools have been leaning more and more toward this method in the last few decades due to standardized testing they may not have reached the level that is predominant in Korean schools. Next could be a disparity in the introduction of materials. Education departments and state testing boards decide when a child should learn and how much is age appropriate. You should see the SOL manual for the VA schools, only the most engaged parent reads it all the way through. Most US schools are also set up to at least attempt to accommodate children with different levels of learning. Because American schools are required by federal law to teach handicapped children as well. Most American schools have programs for learning disabled as well as TAG or talented and gifted students.

  • RElgin

    I am suggesting that, at this point, I would say that the great difference in scores lies in the testing methodology used here in Korea. There is an economic drive to make the testing difficult and tricky here so as to drive parents to spend the money on hagwons. This situation does not exist in the US, though, as the Atlantic article contends, this is a trend that is developing in America.
    Educational material is taught and tested for, in Korea, in an entirely inappropriate manner; one that is contributing greatly to household debt as well as teenage suicide, in Korea, which is amongst the highest in the world.

  • Aja Aja

    If Korea makes tests easier, and everybody passes the tests, then how are they going to differentiate from all those students who are applying to the same schools? I would guess that the tests should be hard enough so that the cream can rise to the top. I don’t think no matter what the education system (American or Korean) is in place, Koreans will never stop over-emphasizing the education and the name brand value of schools. There will always be Koreans who will look for any educational advantage over others, and there’s absolutely nothing can be done unless the culture changes.

  • wangkon936

    “… how are they going to differentiate from all those students who are applying to the same schools?”

    Little thing called the CSAT. Rumor has it that it’s not easy.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/College_Scholastic_Ability_Test

  • RElgin

    Read the Atlantic article for a start. It cites examples, thus that might give you an idea of how this occurs.

  • dogbertt

    Interesting that Nebraska is one of the very few states that didn’t agree to Common Core. Did that affect your choice of state? It’s certainly a hot topic.

  • bumfromkorea

    Well, if they make the school tests easier but keep the CSAT the way it is, my guess is absolutely nothing will change except the education system will rely even more on a behemoth of a test that they let kids take only once per year…

  • Sumo294

    Most scholarships in America are need based–you simply have to be poor to qualify. Some state schools have scholarships to lure cash strapped families from sending their kids to better schools. Many of the top schools unknown to most people have special cash reserves that will cover student expenses if the circumstances are unusual.

  • Judith Mopalia

    Note that not all schools in America have the “right” textbooks. If you are in an urban school or an extremely rural school, you may or may not be lucky. If you are in an inner city school, you almost certainly won’t have the “right” textbooks. And even if you did, the odds are against your being able to read them, because you and most people in your class will have been promoted just to keep you moving through the system, not because you actually can perform at grade level expectations. If you can go to an elite private school, you don’t have to waste your time with these tests and your teachers can actually spend the time teaching and enabling skills like thinking,problem solving, and creativity. I’ve taught in elite private schools and the most dismal of inner city schools and have seen it first hand. Probably the most telling? The year I had to put together a computer skills curriculum for a class that spanned a kid whose family had dinner with Bill Gates occasionally and a recent immigrant child whose native language had no written alphabet. I walked away from teaching the next year.

  • RElgin

    A merit scholarship *cough*

  • RElgin

    No.

  • Alex

    I am also very confused. I think what you suggest is that all of Korean schools have unfair textbook practices. Where as the article suggests that unfair textbook practices in the states are more nuanced. If your child did bad in Korea and well in the states, and assuming that your child had the benefit of fair textbooks in the states, it would follow that unfair textbooks in Korea are better than fair textbooks in the states. At least in terms of standardized test.

  • RElgin

    Geez, I would have thrown the immigrant kid to the wolves instead of the class.

  • Alex

    of course I am making some assumptions about standardized test – that your child retained material that she learned in Korea and that it was useful for the tests in the states :-)

  • RElgin

    Unfortunately I do not have a copy here of her tests from the US. I will point out that the schools here refused to let us look at the main tests she was given – we only got the scores. I wonder why would they not want us to see the test material she was tested on?

  • Alex

    Not sure why they wouldn’t let you see the test? Maybe it has something to do with the competitive nature of Korean parents? But it would be very interesting to see.

  • Alex

    the most positive way of seeing this (if it is even necessary) is that a combination of unfair texbooks in Korea coupled with the fair textbooks in the states produced a great score!

  • RElgin

    … especially since it could be compared to materials found in hagwons. This does seem fishy to me.

  • tatertot

    Is it possible that the two scores are on different scales? When I was a student in Washington State, the standardized test scores were reported as what percent of test takers you outperformed. So your daughter getting the 99th percentile is basically her getting the maximum score. Is the 56 from Korea also a score of the same type, or an absolute score? I don’t know how the standardized tests work in Korea. Could it be possible that a 56 in Korea is the same as a 99th percentile in the United States?

  • MikeinGyeonggi

    Kindergarten in Korea means any education before entering elementary school. Some parents start as early as 3 or 4 if they can afford it.

  • MikeinGyeonggi

    I believe Korean teachers take testing material straight from the textbooks because they are too lazy or lack the confidence to create it on their own.

    Every high school English exam I’ve seen is just passages copied out of the textbook with a few words deleted for a gap fill. The selections are random at best. Most of the teachers would have trouble passing their own exams if they had not created (plagiarized) the content themselves.

    The students “study” for their English exams by trying to memorize parts of their English textbooks. Most have no idea what any of it means… They just remember words in order.

    After the exams are marked, I get dozens of Kakao Talk messages from teachers at different schools asking me to mitigate appeals from students regarding answers on test questions. The teachers expect the answers to be the exact wording from the textbook passage, which is seldom the only correct answer. In almost every case, the student is correct (or partially correct). The teachers get frustrated because this causes them to lose face in front of the student.

    This is just my experience with public school English exams. I can’t speak for other subjects.

  • MikeinGyeonggi

    They are both percentile scoring.

  • MikeinGyeonggi

    As well as by parents who think their children’s education starts and ends at the school entrance.

    Parents want answers for why their child isn’t succeeding as much as other kids. Some feel relieved when they get an ADHD or learning disabilities diagnosis because that gives them an answer. They expect Ritalin and IEPs to make up for never having practiced reading with their kids at home. Parents want teachers to give their kids the extra attention that they never gave themselves.

  • RElgin

    I have been told by other Koreans that it is the same for other subjects as well. They too feel that testing is done in a manner to cause the students enough trouble so that the parents panic and pay up for a hagwon.
    The much of the math work here seems to be very useful though, again, the schools curriculum keeps escalating in difficulty and does use hagwon-sourced material.

  • bballi bballi paradise

    might reuse the questions the next time…

  • MikeinGyeonggi

    One difference is that Korean math teachers actually understand math. They don’t have to check with foreign math teachers when a student challenges a question on a test. I’m also told there is pretty good money to be made for hagwon math teachers.

  • RElgin

    I would concur. The tutor we hired was *really* good and communicated his subject clearly.

  • Judith Mopalia

    I’ve never thrown any student to the wolves, much less a whole class. Each got an education appropriate to his level from me. The kid’s ESL teacher never figured out that the reason he was having trouble writing and reading English was that he was illiterate in his own language, too. I figured it out and tried to get him help. but it was hopeless. I just couldn’t stand being in the middle of this any more and left he teaching profession entirely.

  • Judith Mopalia

    When I was studying for an all-subjects Certification for Elementary teaching (American) the entire cohort of 70 included one math major and one science major (me). The complete focus of the Math Teaching Methods class was given to overcoming math anxiety – not the student’s anxiety, the teacher’s. The one required math skills class was surprisingly interesting and even exciting, and I taught the whole course to my 7-year-old at home. The professor was fired because the failure and dropout rate was too high. If you wonder why your
    American student can’t understand math, it’s because the teacher doesn’t, either.

  • Sumo294

    Usually only one math teacher at each public school knows real math–the teacher is usually male, older, and white and teaches the honors students exclusively. In order to get access to this teacher you must first bypass the gauntlet of teachers who peer in their own textbooks in mystery–tyvm to the teacher’s union who makes it impossible to fire such teachers.

  • comfortable.chairs

    As a graduate of the fine Omaha Public Schools and as the significant other of a Korean public school teacher…

    I found school in Nebraska to be what you make of it. I graduated from Central High, 2500+ students that were black, hispanic, and white in about equal doses and everything from dirt poor to Warren Buffet’s granddaughter (two years below me). If you wanted to do well, you did well. There were plenty of opportunities, plenty of ways to learn, the sky is the limit. On the other hand, if you didn’t want to do a thing, you didn’t have to do a thing and they’d happily fail you until you were old enough to be out of the system. Of my classmates, many went to top schools – Cal, Stanford, University of Chicago, Harvard – and many went to prison, or were killed, or joined the military, or simply got out and got HS diploma jobs.

    The classes and the tests were like that – open ended, many possible answers, many possible solutions.

    On the other hand, I got a call during midterms from my lady asking me specific and particular grammar questions, questions that I, a native speaker who holds an MA in Linguistics, who has been teaching for many years, could not give an answer to. I consulted PEU, my old linguistics books, coworkers – in the end, our conclusion was that both answers she had suggested were right. This caused a huge problem as one of the parents threatened to take the school to court over this question.

    And that is the difference. It sounds like your daughter is a normal human being who does not see the world in ridiculous black and white terms.

    While the article is interesting, my experience again with Nebraska schools is that the books are not new and the tests we were taking were not tied to the books. Of course, it’s been about 15 years since I took a standardized test there – well before No Child Left Behind and the Common Core Crap, but still, it just sounds like your daughter is not a robot – good for her and you!

  • RElgin

    We were worried about putting the kind of pressure on her that too many Korean mothers put on their children. We felt she needed time to be a child and to play and experience growing up as such instead of the rigorous lifestyle put on so many Korean kids by their mothers. I have met enough humourless Korean kids now to know what the effect upon these kids can be and it is little wonder that so many elect suicide when they lose their ability to cope with the situation given them.

    I have met so many wonderful kids here, who are a credit to their parents too; that is another reason why I find living here a satisfying experience.

  • brier

    That is a great piece in the NYT. She really hits the nail on the head with the mindset (feudal as she refers to it).

  • Sumo294

    You kidding me–outlaw parents who want to help their kids to succeed. She suggests we make new laws, then form new regulators to enforce those laws and of course all in the name of saving children from their own abusive parents whose sin it was that they care enough about their kids to spend their money to help their children do better at school. This is typical liberal thinking at its finest.

  • Judith Mopalia

    Too broad of a generalization – the only math teacher who ever “got” my
    math prodigy son was a woman, Kate – all the men he had, elementary
    through college, bored him to death. OTOH, the worst teacher I ever knew was a female science teacher who got shunted to teaching math because she had seniority and there was a vacancy. When she was transferred back to the science department, the science department chair quit. It really sounds like I’m making these stories up, doesn’t it?

  • Judith Mopalia

    The key word in your comment is “suburban.” Suburban schools and some urban schools – like magnet schools – are very good. Urban schools in poor neighborhoods or that run inclusion programs that overload classes and teachers with inappropriately mixed classes of kids with learning disabilities and poor English are a nightmare. I’ve taught in high-end private schools suburban schools and inner city schools, and they are not even remotely the same educational systems. The problem with the US educational system is the unevenness of it, which gives good educations to those who can chose their schools by zip code and those who can’t. Suburban schools spend a great deal more money on each student than urban schools, especially those in poor neighborhoods, because they have access to parental pockets. So while well off Americans are not sending their kids to hagwons, they are supporting the “Spring Fling” auction and all the other money makers that provide the cushion funds that make better schooling possible.