Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


It's Not How Often You Test - It's What You Think Tests Tell You

What's missing from the national debate on school testing.

"What makes a test feel like an interesting challenge rather than an anxiety-provoking assault?"

This is the question posed by Elisabeth Rosenthal, in "Testing, The Chinese Way," an article in this week's New York Times (Week in Review). In the piece, she writes about the experiences of her young children as students at the International School of Beijing. Beginning as early as kindergarten, children in China (Rosenthal's included) take frequent quizzes and exams, and she notes that by and large her children did not find this constant testing anxiety-provoking, even when they performed poorly.

Americans, on the other hand, have traditionally been philosophically opposed to too much testing, particularly of very young children, on the grounds that it adds unnecessary pressure to the educational environment. Many fear that testing can create debilitating failure experiences that permanently shape a young child's view of learning. But the tide of opinion in the U.S. may be changing.

Increasingly, some American education experts, including members of the Obama administration, are advocating for more testing, on the grounds that more frequent assessments will give teachers and students a better sense of how they are progressing. Research shows that this kind of low-stakes, age-appropriate testing provides feedback that can in fact help students learn more effectively.

There are still plenty of good reasons to be concerned when it comes to increased testing, which Rosenthal acknowledges, but despite these concerns, there is little doubt that assessment is on the rise in the American classroom.

So, given the direction we seem to be going in, back to Rosenthal's question - how do we make sure that testing is perceived as informative and challenging, rather than as a series of anxiety-filled experiences that disrupt real learning?

I think we've been missing something important in our national discussion of testing - something that will help us find the answer to that question. We rarely talk about what testing means to a child and to their teachers. We don't consider the kinds of conclusions we tend to draw when a child does poorly.

Different cultures tend to rely on somewhat different explanations for why a child underperforms, and this difference is essential to understanding why testing may work so well in China and be so troublesome here in the U.S. You see, Americans tend to believe that test scores are a reflection of ability, while in China, they are perceived to be, more than anything else, a function of effort.

Most East Asian educational systems are founded on a bedrock of Confucian doctrine that heavily emphasizes the importance of effort (e.g., "Being diligent in study means devoting one's effort to it for a long time. " - Confucius)

One of my fellow graduate students at Columbia, who had been born and educated in Korea, once told me that Koreans have an expression, sugo haseyo, that is used to congratulate someone on a job well done. It literally means "work hard." The message it conveys is that no matter how well you have done, you can always try to do better. (To which a typical American response would be "Gee, thanks a lot.")

Not surprisingly, Asian students are much more likely to blame their poor performance on a test (as well as their successes) on the effort they put in to it.
For example, in one study, Japanese college students who were led to believe that they had failed on an anagram task were most likely to choose "lack of effort" rather than "lack of ability," "task difficulty," or "luck" as the most important cause. In another, researchers found that Chinese mothers cited "lack of effort" as the predominant cause of their child's failure in mathematics, while American mothers tended to blame failure on ability, training, luck, and effort equally.

Asian children are explicitly taught that hard work and persistence are the keys to success. It makes sense, therefore, that they would respond to poor test performance with increased effort (and over time come to excel in subjects like math and science, which require determination and long hours to master.)

Too often, American students (even very young ones) labor under the (mistaken) belief that doing well on tests is a matter of possessing some innate ability - as if some people are just born capable of spelling and long division. When they test poorly, they jump to the (mistaken) conclusion that they don't have what it takes to do well.

If we want our children to see tests as informative and challenging, we need to emphasize the importance of effort, persistence, and strategy use over ability. We need to explain to them how tests can help them see what they need to improve, and express confidence that they will improve if they don't give up. We need to learn to praise our children for their effort and hard work, rather than (or at least in addition to) always telling them how "smart" they are.

American children can probably benefit from more testing, but only if they come to see assessment as a tool of learning, rather than a measurement of fixed ability. In other words, only when we teach them that testing is about getting smarter, rather than being smart.

For reference:

R. D. Hess, C. Chih-Mei, and T. M. McDevitt, "Cultural Variations in Family Beliefs about Children's Performance in Mathematics: Comparisons among People's Republic of China, Chinese-American, and Caucasian-American Families," Journal of Educational Psychology 79, no. 2 (1982): 179-188

K. Shikanai, "Effects of Self-esteem on Attribution of Success-Failure," Japanese Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 18 (1978): 47-55.

More from Heidi Grant Halvorson Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today