Denmark’s Miscue?

I just arrived home again from Denmark and have literally TONS of material on their system of education. Perhaps most interesting is that Denmark is moving towards a system of accountability testing that is modeled after NCLB to some degree. This testing has been introduced by a conservative government led by a Prime Minister who greatly admires President Bush and is being advertised as a way to "hold schools accountable" for student performance.

Students—starting this year—will take computer based multiple choice assessments on the computer to measure their understanding of required curricula. Results from the testing will then be used to rate and rank schools much like the US. Right now, there are no plans to hold students back based on test results, but it’s likely that such steps will logically follow in the future.

What makes this step so amazing is that assessment in Danish schools has traditionally been far more nuanced and complex. Students aren’t given "grades" by teachers. Instead, constructive feedback is offered orally and in written form on classroom generated assessments. Conferences are held at least twice each year between parents, students and teachers where student performance and ability are reviewed. Written documents shared during these conferences replace "report cards."

Students are also never "failed" at all. There is a belief that no child is a "failure" just because they haven’t mastered a specific set of skills. Instead, there is an effort to celebrate what a child has mastered and an attempt to continue to master missing skill sets.  Portfolios that document student strengths and weaknesses are started as children enter school and then follow children throughout their school careers.  Work samples are included that can be used for reflection by parents, students and teachers.

Most interesting, however, is that oral examinations have formed the foundation of Denmark’s "final assessments" until now.  Teachers develop a series of performance related tasks and questions, complete with supporting materials necessary for completing the "exam."

Students are then given time—in front of the teacher—to answer the question.  A written response is provided, and then students are asked to defend their reasoning in front of the teacher.  Teachers ask probing questions to gauge the depth of student understanding and then "grade" a child’s "performance."

How does that sound for quality assessment?

I spent a day living with two teachers while I was in Denmark and we talked extensively about Denmark’s new move towards testing. They were both very concerned about the new move towards standardized tests and saw them as "watering down" what has been a really effective assessment system. They were also worried that newspapers would begin printing testing results and selling them as indicators of school success. These results, they feared, would shape community perception about students and schools even though they were simplistic assessments of performance.

Sound familiar?

They were also, however, pretty certain that assessment wouldn’t completely shift towards testing in Denmark because their country has had a long tradition of schooling that emphasizes the development of individual values and the ability to act on personal decisions—things that couldn’t be easily tested. What’s more, quality assessment has been a part of the fabric of their system for over 100 years—reducing the support that testing was likely to have in the general public.

I told them that I wasn’t so sure….I said that testing has been broadly embraced by non-educators in our country because it seems to make measurement simple. Outsiders don’t understand our arguments that student learning is far more complex than just a number on a test. Instead, they like the easy comparisons that come from standardized tests—-even when they have little understanding of what those numbers really mean.

Does anyone else believe that the reason we over-rely on test results for measurement in America is because the general public has a poor understanding of exactly what tests can and cannot do?  Is the first barrier that we face in creating more reliable measures of assessment convincing non-educators that tests have significant limitations that are lost in the simple numbers published in newspapers around our country?

Image retrieved from my own collection….Not a bad shot, huh?!

One thought on “Denmark’s Miscue?

  1. Mike

    Dear Bill:
    Welcome back. Glad your journey was productive.
    You have, as usual, laid out the issues quite well. We are currently relying on tests for several reasons:
    (1) Virtually no one listens to educators (after all, why would they know anything worthwhile about education?)
    (2) Testing is a political “solution” to a education problem that doesn’t exist.
    (3) The politicians have sold the solution effectively, to their, and no one else’s advantage.
    (4) The public isn’t interested/aroused enough–for the moment–to hold the politician’s feet to the fire and to start listening to teachers again.
    Pity poor Denmark, about to embark on the path we’ve tragically trod. It’s interesting that American education goes through very expensive, stupid and destructive nationwide fads (remember the “Open Classroom Concept?”) which always follow the same pattern:
    (1) The fad is introduced, has bold new acronyms, is shiny and pretty, and promises to solve every problem that has ever existed and save education.
    (2) Teachers protest that the fad is the dumbest thing they’ve ever heard, but no one listens.
    (3) The fad is implemented, costing years and billions.
    (4) Three or four years down the line, it’s obvious to even the enablers and cheerleaders for the fad that the teachers were right and it is the dumbest thing anyone has ever heard. Not only that, it has many, many harmful effects, all of which were foretold by the teachers to whom no one listened.
    (5) Therefore, to avoid looking incredibly stupid and incompetent, the enablers and cheerleaders must engage in wholesale lying to brag about the wonders and virtually supernatural effectiveness of the fad.
    (6) It is only after 10-12 years, when those who staked their reputations and careers on the fad have moved on to a new fad, have left the field entirely, have retired, or been murdered by teachers and parents who just can’t take it anymore, does American education spend additional billions to quietly undo the horrors of the fad–and no one can imagine why anyone thought it was a good idea in the first place–before tragically latching on to the next fad.
    I suspect we have around four more years before the mandatory, high-stakes testing fad goes the way of the Dodo. Pity it won’t be sooner. Pity too that the Danes won’t learn from the mistakes of others, though it may not be too late for them. I wonder, does the Danish public listen any better to their teachers?

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