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In this era of global competition, test scores are used as the primary benchmark to call out which countries will produce “successful” students. Knowing that American students are competing against a global pool of the best and brightest has led education leaders to focus more on how they score on international tests compared to students from other countries.

But high test scores don’t provide a complete picture of students’ success, according to Yong Zhao, world-renown author, scholar, and professor of education at University of Oregon.

“Countries that score highly, have students with lower confidence,” Zhao said in his keynote address to educators gathered online for the 2013 Leadership Summit.

That seems counter-intuitive, and Zhao isn’t claiming a causal connection — he questions whether focusing on test scores might inadvertently lower confidence. Zhao has analyzed data from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and discovered a negative correlation between high math scores and confidence.

Similarly, in his analysis of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test that analyzes how countries score in reading, math and science, Zhao found a negative correlation between attitude and attainment. In other words, the countries with lower scores had students who reported higher interest in the subjects. Zhao analyzed media stories from high scoring countries like Korea and Japan, where students don’t show enough confidence or enthusiasm for subjects in which they excel.

He found the same results when he looked at students’ belief in their entrepreneurial capacity, their ability to start businesses or be self-starters. “Everybody is trying to perfect this system and make a good bet about the knowledge and skills that our children might need,” he said. “All of this says that the measures we use to measure education outcomes, to view them as the best education systems in terms of test scores, do not result in the same kinds of things we might value otherwise — entrepreneurial capabilities, confidence, enjoyment.”


Zhao’s findings have led him to question the value of the tests altogether. If the stated goal is to get kids ready for careers, and careers demand confidence, creativity, and an entrepreneurial attitude, then why focus on test scores that seem to produce the opposite effect?

“A lot of times teachers have been asked to improve our schools, to make our schools more effective, but the question I’m raising is, effective at what?” Zhao said. “Some reading programs could improve your students’ reading scores, but cause your students to hate education.” He’s concerned that national initiatives like the Common Core State Standards could have unintended consequences.

In Zhao’s view, most education systems start out by defining the outcomes. They make a bet about which skills will be important and promise that if students master those skills, they will succeed. Zhao sees this as a flawed approach because it forces everyone into a homogenous group, a bit like making sausage out of all different kinds of meat. Defining outcomes allows systems to measure results, but it stamps out individuality.

Countries that score well on international exams, like Korea, have clearly defined outcomes, narrow curricula, and dictatorial systems with clear ranking and sorting systems. Students know exactly how they stack up in that system.

“Everybody is reminded everyday that they have to master the skills,” Zhao said. “But in the process you have people who are either kicked out of the system or put down into a different school and they will lose confidence.”  By valuing what’s prescribed and assessed, the system creates a uniform group with little confidence in the individual’s unique contributions.

Zhao pointed to the tremendous amount of local control in the U.S. educational system as both its savior and a contributing factor to its lower test scores. It allows for different types of schools and for students to demonstrate that they can be good at different things. There are arts schools, engineering schools and schools focused on bi-lingual education. That kind of choice allows students the chance to find what they are good at. The U.S. system also gives learners many second chances to keep learning and find their strengths.

[RELATED READING: Some Ask: What’s the Value of Common Core State Standards?]

“The new education needs to start with the child. Not with the prescribed content,” Zhao said. “We start with individual differences; we start with their cultural strengths.” Beginning with the individual and building upwards from there allows each person to become uniquely great at something. And when students are passionate about anything, they can then be creative and entrepreneurial. For Zhao, the new model has to be about creating a new middle class based on creativity.

To do that, he suggests giving students more autonomy over their learning and emphasizing the importance of making authentic products that solve problems. He also emphasizes a global learning community that can collaborate to fill the gaps that each country, school or teacher experiences.


Zhao is actively trying to create the learning experiences he has written and lectured about. He’s started an online education community called ObaWorld, which costs $1 per student per year and is a closed, private site. It’s a cloud-based learning platform, like Moodle, and includes similar features like the ability to make and evaluate portfolios. But Zhao is most excited that he’s recruiting students and teachers from all over the world to participate. So a teacher can create a tool or course and put it on ObaWorld to help an educator on the other side of the country.

His other big push is to create more entrepreneurial school leaders through the Global Education Leadership Master’s program, which is based online and accredited through University of Oregon. Students will have to create a product that will improve education and will be encouraged to think about schools as entrepreneurial global enterprises.

In an Era of Global Competition, What Exactly Are We Testing For? 19 April,2013Katrina Schwartz

  • Karla Valenti

    Conversations like these are critical to reforming our current educational system. For better or for worse, traditional forms of teaching are quickly becoming absolute. Moreover, the specific skills that used to be taught (those which we are so intent on testing) are also becoming increasingly insignificant. This is due to two things:

    (1) the incredible advances that we’ve made – and continue making – in technology make it virtually impossible for us to predict what our life will be like 5, 10, 30, 40 years from now. Thus, it’s hard to predict what challenges future generations will face and what specific skills they will need to overcome them. It is quite possible that all the things we spend so much time testing today will be utterly irrelevant and useless two decades from now.

    (2) the increasing globalization (facilitated in large part by advances in technology) that grants us opportunities for dialogue with people whose backgrounds and experiences are vastly different than our own, exposing us to very different circumstances and related challenges. Focusing on specific skill sets does not equip us to be able to understand these other people/challenges, let alone collaborate on a global scale in solving problems.

    What this means is that to be competitive moving forward, we need to get away from focusing on specific skill sets (teaching children what to learn), and move towards a broader set of competencies that fundamentally teach children how to learn.

    For me, those competencies are ten (http://bit.ly/Sb9LH7):

    (1) flexibility (http://bit.ly/17vHwep)
    (2) open-mindedness (http://bit.ly/17vHwep)
    (3) creativity (http://bit.ly/123D58p)
    (4) innovation (http://bit.ly/123D58p)
    (5) empathy (http://bit.ly/YQNWSu)
    (6) collaboration (http://bit.ly/YQNWSu)
    (7) multi-lingual abilities (http://bit.ly/ZeQF7H)
    (8) inter-cultural abilities (http://bit.ly/ZeQF7H)
    (9) courage (http://bit.ly/YQO1W0)
    (10) use of multiple intelligences (http://bit.ly/10ZtCLn)

    To the extent that we can teach our children these 10 key competencies, they will be positioned to be able to learn what they need to learn in order to be competitive in an otherwise unpredictable world.

    Short of knowing what exactly lies ahead, I think this is probably one of the best ways to ensure our children will continue to be successful.

    K (www.totthoughts.com)

    • Janet Hooten


      I agree with you that these types of conversations are vital to any type of reform. How do you see higher education in regards to this issue?


  • Cassandra

    Zhao’s findings SHOULD have led him to question his own assumptions. I cannot think of anything worse than a person who is incompetent but confident. This would be a person with poor self-assessment skills and an inability to learn anything new, utterly self-satisfied with what they know at 15 or 18 or whenever. In contrast, a person who is good at something but unsure of him or herself will always check their work and be open to learning new things. Which do you want designing your bridges?

    This kind of “research” is totally bogus and represents the nonsense that mostly passes as education scholarship. It takes a foregone conclusion that is largely political in nature and interprets data to suit the conclusion.

    • Ida mai lea hagen

      You seem very self-satisfied…

    • fahrender

      What we have now “is largely political in nature and interprets data to suit the conclusion” or worse, falsifies data to make people with an agenda look good. Schwartz’s article rightly highlights how societies which obsess on standardized test scores produce graduates who really dislike a lot of what they have studied. Some of your claims about what Zhao said distort what he actually said and what the take away really is.

    • Thinker

      What if the bridge that needs to be designed has to be something totally new? People who advocate for less emphasis on standardized tests don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. They just don’t want the accumulation of facts and skills to be the end result of education, but tools to be used by the student. A self-directed learner does not mean “incompetent but confident” as you suggest. A self-directed learner will gravitate towards masters in the field the student is studying, and will acquire the necessary knowledge and skills to build that bridge in a way that doesn’t stamp out his/her creativity or ability to think critically.

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  • Andrzej

    “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
    “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.”I don’t much care where –” said Alice.”Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.”– so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.”Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

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Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She’s worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She’s a staff writer for KQED’s education blog MindShift.

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