[IPAC-List] Testing Education

Mark Hammer Mark.Hammer at psc-cfp.gc.ca
Mon Nov 23 10:34:19 EST 2009

Several years ago, I was attending an international human development conference here in town, and was introduced by an adolescence researcher to a popular phrase amongst South Korean youth that I've probably mentioned here before. The phrase is (translated to English) "Four pass, five fail", and refers to the amount of sleep one may permit oneself during the preparation for university entrance exams in the last year or two of high school. Should one slack off and get more than 4hrs sleep a night, they are destined to be the also-rans, and not get into university. Those students preparing for the exam go directly from regular school to night classes at prep schools. The assumption is that they will spend some 18hrs a day in study, with 4hrs for sleep and 2hrs allocated to biological functions (eating, etc) and some brief chit-chat with family and friends, and getting from A to B. So, the perceived pressure of testing, and the high stakes it may involve, is not unique to this continent; tests are "the enemy" in many places around the world. Needless to say, as time goes one and more and more kids attend such prep programs, test performance becomes more and more skewed as more kids reach asymptote. The number of university places is fixed, and the selection methods are top-down, such that what might have been an outstanding score 5 years ago is now merely commonplace.

The "problem" is not that tests are used, but rather the very high stakes they are used for. In many respects, both the tests used for entry into South Korean post-secondary institutions, and those noted in the article Reid linked to, permit one to enter different social classes, or rather prevent people from being shut out of them. The pushback we get from many candidates is often based on a very similar perception; a kind of "What? You don't think I'm not GOOD ENOUGH to work in your stinking organization?".

Don't get me started on the connection between the fall of the aristocracy in the 1800's, and the rise of testing and a "meritocracy" which attempted to replace blood/lineage-justified privilege with test/credential-based privilege. If such topics intrigue you, I highly recommend Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin's book "Biology as Ideology" in which he traces the social upheavals that were replaced with things like IQ testing, eugenics, and modern genetics. I'd like to think that we've gone well beyond such social Darwinist uses of testing, and most of the time we have, but many institutions have stayed true enough to the mindset Lewontin outlines, that we continue to fight battles with respect to acceptance of high quality professional testing that should have been won decades ago.


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