This is the second of a two-part conversation with Yong Zhao about standards, testing and other core elements of the modern system of education, and the assumptions that may be standing in the way of meeting the real learning needs of all children. He is a professor in the college of education at the University of Oregon and author of Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World and World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students.

There is already a strong backlash against politicians and school administrators because of high-stakes standardized tests, and the way results are used to justify school closures. Some parents and educators have encouraged families to “opt out” of tests, such as those related to the Common Core State Standards, as a way to protest these practices and the effects they are having on children, families and communities. However, Yong Zhao, education professor at the University of Oregon, recommends that parents, educators and policymakers go a step further, and use the moment to re-examine the role of testing—and the issue of accountability—more broadly.

Tests are just one form of assessment, he points out, and limited in what they can accurately measure. Important qualities such as creativity, persistence and collaboration, for example, are tricky to measure, because they are individualized and situation- or task-specific (someone may collaborate well in one group setting but not in another). And no test can measure whether children are receiving “a quality learning experience that meets the needs of individual students.”

High-stakes tests concern Zhao the most, because he says they represent more than misspent time and money. He faults them for suppressing creativity and innovation, and creating narrowed educational experiences, because everything that is not measured becomes secondary or is dismissed entirely. Moreover, “constant ranking and sorting” creates stress and makes students less confident.

By contrast, feedback that avoids needless comparisons among students can be very useful, and doesn’t require much time or money. When it’s clear which skills and content need to be mastered (such as the ability to conjugate verbs in order to become proficient in a foreign language), low-stakes tests can help learners direct their attention to filling in the gaps in their knowledge. More helpful still are explicit written assessments that describe an individual’s progress. The key to good assessment, says Zhao, is to ask: “Whose purpose does this serve? Is the learner trying to get better using assessment, … rather than just using it to judge?”

Parents seeking assurance that their children are learning can look at their children’s engagement level, and notice if they’re exploring topics or pursuits that interest them, and improving in their areas of interest.

Steps for Identifying Needs

As for how to evaluate schools, he recommends that parents and community members ponder some key questions. “First of all, ask if the school is really personalizing learning to meet individual needs, with a broad and flexible curriculum,” he says. Children interested in music, for example, should have equal opportunities to develop that skill as to develop literacy.

The next question he would ask: “Is school an engaging place—do students want to go to school? If the more they go to school, the more they hate it, that would be a horrible place,” he says. Analogies with taking bad-tasting medicine fail, he adds, because there’s no disease involved, and “children don’t need to be fixed.”

And finally, “Do the teachers care about the development of the whole child?” he asks. “If a teacher just helped a student who had lost hope because of a personal problem, that should count for something. Teachers should be human mentors. Children can take ownership of their learning, but inevitably they will encounter setbacks. Do teachers help develop their social, emotional and physical well being, and challenge them and push them forward?”

On a broader societal level, educational equity can be gauged by whether schools in low-income jurisdictions receive comparable resources to invest in good teachers, professional development, materials, facilities, field trips and other enrichment activities.

Who Should be Accountable for What?

Teaching can be mandated, but learning can’t, Zhao points out; what adults can do is provide opportunities and offer guidance when needed. That’s what we should be tracking, he says—“accountability should shift back to what we do for kids, rather than what they’ve done for us.”

In other words, each person should be held accountable only for what he or she can control—the educators for providing an environment that stimulates and supports individual learning, and the community and government for providing sufficient funding to enable them to carry this out equitably.

Even if funding levels are modest (in the first article in this series, Zhao explained how quality can be achieved economically), the best way to ensure that the funds are well spent is to have greater local autonomy. “Locally controlled entities are much closer to their constituents,” Zhao says, and more responsive to pressure to cater to their needs. Those most invested in the schools’ learning environments—the children and their parents—then wouldn’t have to work as hard to get their schools to change direction.

The first part of this conversation with Yong Zhao about standards is available here.

  • Gary Gruber

    Who is asking the question, How is the outcome of the learning experience being applied to solving problems, making things happen and contributing to the common good?

  • Robert Schwartz

    Learning of individual students can be assessed in much better ways than standardized testing. There is a place for standardized testing, but not for my kids:

  • joebeckmann

    Amazing how narrow and parochial this discussion really is. In the early 1990’s, when Massachusetts was one of the “inventors” of standardized tests, the state also mandated portfolios, largely to amplify and thereby empower students and teachers who tested poorly but, clearly, learned a lot.

    In the decades that followed those portfolios took more and more space, and produced less and less of the leverage they were intended to produce, as Pearson & others pressed hard – and got a series of naive and ruthless Secretaries of Education – to sell testing instead of other measures.

    At the same time as those Massachusetts “standards” were being developed, the US Department of Labor conceived and reported on the Secretary(of Labor)’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, which classified thousands of skills necessary to career success. Eventually, the Assistant Secretary of Labor who led several years of planning meetings to index those skills (all of which are still online, incidentally, although they seem to be ignored here and by Zhao, developed – with Kellogg Foundation support through Johns Hopkins where he landed after Labor – what he called the “Verified Resume” for young people to “verify” their work-related skills with summer employers. (That also is online, by googling Dr. Arnold Packer, who Zhao ought to be citing.)

    In the middle of the last decade I – and many others – worked with teens to help them explore their “inquiry,” collaboration, creativity, and other “soft skills,” only to discover that they used those skills to create teams in completing projects that crossed disciplines, and helped each other by teaching each other those same skills. With support from the Ford and then MacArthur Foundations, through Harvard Ed (hardly an obscure college partner!), we adapted those criteria to the portfolios the state mandated two decades before. Kids who build portfolios showed how much they knew, and helped each other “look good,” each year, and “look better” year after year.

    That really is what assessment is for. And their teachers discovered that students drive learning, and portfolios help frame better questions, higher achievement, and, ultimately, better test scores. It is not rocket science to ask kids what they learn! Nor for teachers and administrators to infer what it took to learn it!

  • I thoroughly agree with the sentiments expressed by Zhao. I have seen first hand how testing can degrade the quality of education or, put another way, the learning outcomes of the learners.
    There needs to be a more serious discussion about accountability, which is the driving force behind testing. For that to happen we need to better understand the learning process. That is where is the problem. A lack of understanding of what is involved in learning something creates practices, both in teaching and in testing, that do the opposite to what we all want, Rather than creating thinking, creative, independent yet disciplined and powerful learners, we end up with many adults who are tending towards the opposite to that.
    The discussion about testing must start with a discussion about learning so we can find the right indicators and work towards them.

  • Abby Robles, D39C

    … each person should be held accountable only for what he or she can control

    Wow. That statement is refreshing and intimidating at the same time. It’s intimidating because trusting that people are managing what they can control is hard to measure. It’s refreshing because, WHAT IF? What if educators were trusted enough to be professionals? What if children were trusted to be accountable for what they could control? What if we were all held to OUR personal standards instead of being held to impersonal standards?

  • Fed

    I am tired of being told I need to raise the children of the community. They are my students. Not my children. I’ve raised a child- and she is curious, and kind, and respectful. I send her to school this way. When her teachers provide opportunities for engagement, she accepts. Most of the time. And when she doesn’t, she suffers. If she grows sufficiently unhappy with the consequence of not being accountable, she problem solves.

    But at no point do I allow her to pretend that it’s her teacher’s fault she is bored or lost. She knows she needs to meet her teachers in the middle. And I know that it is my job to teach her that and to help her reflect on HER own role in HER education. As her mother, it is my job to cultivate empathy, reflection, playfulness- all foundations for engagement.

    Despite my intro, I do teach all these things every day, and they are core values I embrace. But I can only be so effective when I am the only voice reminding students to be curious, or to be kind, or to wonder, or to make connections, and reconsider, and envision. It’s unacceptable for teachers to be expected to carry a torch that is lit long before students walk in the door. That flame needs to be tended to by all parties.

    • Matt Eldridge

      I totally agree. At present, the Australian Government blames everything on bad teaching from teachers who graduated after gaining degrees in dodgy university courses. Politicians don’t even need a degree to become qualified to make the often I’ll informed decisions that affect millions! I believe the family environment is the main factor that affects success in education. Without the support from parents for what’s happening at school, teacher efforts can often be in vain. The “teacher bashing” from the government will never work. They’re in a tough position because if they start blaming parents, they won’t get the votes. A government that values it’s teachers will lead to more cohesive parent / teacher / student relationships. My experience of the blame game is that it rarely works. Thanks for your well communicated post.

  • T. N.

    It would be great to
    hold people accountable for what they can control. The issue is how we have people think we can
    control more than we actually can. While
    the instructor does provide the ingredients for success and learning, the
    students still need to process and digest the material into knowledge. Standardized testing follows the lines that
    there should be one track for processing subject material. However, most of life requires creative
    thinking and problem solving. This
    creates a challenge with regards to testing.
    There will be too many stakeholders, and eventually a decision will need
    to be made for the establishment of a baseline and what is acceptable.


    I like the quote about accountability, “accountability should shift back to what we do for kids, rather than what they’ve done for us.” We are not doing our students any favors with 15 days of lost instruction spent staring at a computer screen and clicking answers in the hopes that they will score high enough to prove they’re “college and career ready.” I spend a lot of time teaching the process and inquiry skills that will make my students successful in life, but none of that is assessed and measured on standardized tests. Students are exhausted and disinterested in the state assessments.
    “Teaching can be mandated, but learning can’t.” The overwhelming majority of students want to learn. They want to gain knowledge and skills to further themselves. Then we put a high stakes standardized test in front of them and their worth is measured by this. Their desire to learn is not always reflected in test scores. Their ability to problem solve, make connections, synthesize, and collaborate with others is not assessed by a state assessment. Yet our success for the year is determined by this or that test score. At the same time budgets, staff, and resources are being cut while students and teachers are asked to do more. The focus is not where it needs to be. Engaging students in learning and high quality inquiry will lead them toward success, but that is not what is being measured.

  • Jandee Kruse

    Where has all of the creativity gone? I appreciate how Vangelona brings up the concern of developing a child’s personality. Just like not everyone is a teacher, not everyone is a carpenter, musician, mechanic or lawyer. We all have developed skills that we all excel at as an individual. By cutting out programs such as music, art or social studies, we are hindering our work force. As you drive around in newer housing developments, it is evident, in my opinion that creativity is lacking in many builders. The houses are beginning to look like they all came out of a cookie cutter…tans and browns, garage in front, lot size under .5 acre, and a wooden fence around perimeter…if you are really lucky you might find a house with a garage on the side. Now this is not to say that the house was built well or to the customer’s approval, just simple observations.
    In the classroom, I personally strive to incorporate musical, artistic or historical interactions within my lessons on a day to day basis. Just the other day I had a guest in my room for my literacy block in 2nd grade. For fluency practice we were singing songs as the lyrics popped up on the screen. After the lesson, the guest confronted me with the question of “what was the point of singing songs?” I looked at her and said “Why not! The kids are practicing reading at a relative pace, practicing expression and enjoying themselves! Seems like a win-win to me!”

    Great article!

  • Jessica

    Standardized testing is exhausted. Simply put, it is a process that students, teachers, parents, and the educational community are done with. I cannot tell you any teacher or fellow classmate of mine in graduate school that can defeat the argument that standardized testing is not the best and most effective way to measure our student’s success and learning. I agree with this article and the idea that we need to take more accountability for the things that are in our control. We all want our students to learn and love learning. If you don’t, you’re in the wrong field! However, standardized testing is hindering this goal! Students and teachers alike are now disengaged and dreading school environments because all we do is participate in this rat race of testing preparation! There is no room for creativity or independence. What can we do to gain this creative spirit back? Take accountability, admit that standardized testing is degrading the quality of our student’s education, and make shifts towards alternative assessment practices which allow our students flexibility, creativity, and ultimately a drive to be life-long learner.

    Ultimately, like the article emphasizes, we need to identify the needs of our students, take accountability for those needs, and apply our guidance and provide opportunities for their growth and success.

  • Jennifer Boss

    I completely agree with changing the way we evaluate our teachers and our student’s learning. I have never supported the idea of using standardized testing as a way to hold teachers accountable. I do think it is important to use assessment to track our students learning and guide our teaching, but the testing should not take away from learning time or student engagement. In order to ensure that our students truly get something out of our teaching, engagement should be high on our priority list. In my experience my students always show more learning and growth when they are actively engaged in and or excited about a lesson as opposed to simply just learning for the sake of learning. I think we should as educators be held accountable for “what we do” for our students. I think that this type of shift would not just be beneficial to our students but would also allow teachers to rethink and refocus their teaching back to what is truly important. Let’s set our students up for success, and work on bringing the joy, love and desire to learn back to our classrooms. Let’s encourage creativity and team work. Let’s show our students that their time is too important to be wasted on test prep and practicing for a test that they may not even remember in a few years.

  • Jinhua Wang

    This is a very refreshing article and the points mentioned just hit me in the head. It is so true that school would be a horrible place if students hate school. Last year my principal asked all seminar teachers to do a survey in the class by asking, “What do you think is school? How do you like school?” Students turned in their answers anonymously. While I was reading their answers, I was so shocked to see responses like “School is like a prison. ” “School is no fun at all.” “I’d rather stay at home than go to school.” and “School means nothing to me.” I have 20 seminar students and 10 of them agreed “School is like a prison.” Only 3 of them thought school is a place for them to get education, make friends and be sociable. School is like a prison…. It sounds very intimidating! But, what makes students think this way? Are we driving students forward by offering guidance and help or are we scaring them out of the pool by doing time-consuming and boring stuff? We as educators really need to think about this seriously. However, teachers are not the only party that should be held accountable for students’ success. Education is not just teacher’s task and responsibility. Like what professor Yong Zhao mentioned in the article, accountability should shift back to what we do for kids, rather than what they’ve done for us. Kids are the hope of the society and we’ve got to do something for them to prepare for a better future. Many parents believe that school is the place for their kids to learn everything and it is ridiculous that they blame schools and teachers for their kids’ bad performances. Yes, schools do help educate children but not to raise children. Parents have the responsibility to raise children. And government needs to support education to help cultivate the next generation but not cuts off the budgets and funding on schools and education. I don’t think that is the right way to develop education. There are for sure many factors that could affect success in education and I strongly believe each party should be held accountable for what they should do and what they can control.

  • E. DeMars

    I really agree with the ideas in this article! What is our goal in assessing students? In the recent years it does seem like we are playing the blame game and trying to point fingers at why students are or aren’t succeeding. Shouldn’t it be to help students achieve and become better learners? And with the form of testing we are using, it seems to encourage teaching to the test. As the article said, we are “suppressing creativity and innovation.” We aren’t allowing students to show us what they know, helping the teacher create experiences to benefit the class and the individual students. We are creating a factory environment where when a student doesn’t succeed there is considered to be a flaw in the system. Not all kids are the same; we can’t use a factory setting and expect to see the same results in everyone. We have to know our students, create a curriculum to help them succeed and create an environment where they want to come to school; where they want to learn a new concept. Students AND teachers shouldn’t dread or stress about the idea of standardized tests. The assessments we give students should help us know what each student is struggling with and the concepts they understand. One test in one form cannot tell us what a student knows. We have to give them a chance!

  • Kim McWilly

    Standardized test are limited in what they really measure. They cannot test creativeness, team work, work ethic, and determination. These tests also have such a huge focus on rankings and scores that other content and curricula is swept aside. For some time now this has been the understanding in education but if we move away from standardized tests what will the future look like?

    In regards to how schools should evaluate he encourages teachers, parents, and community members to ask if personalized learning is being met for individual needs. School should also be engaging and somewhere students want to be. In conclusion he adds that teachers must care about the students. Although I see what Zhao is getting at and agree in general with his statements I feel they are unrealistic. Teachers by nature are there for students. I without a doubt love each of my students and do my best to make my content applicable to their lives. However, sometimes it is hard to make everything engaging and meet individualized needs. There isn’t enough time to plan and prepare especially in a low-income district with limited resources. This as he mentions does play a role in students learning.

    “Teaching can be mandated, but learning can’t… Accountability should shift back to what we do for kids, rather than what they’ve done for us” Zhao states. This statement couldn’t be more poignant and true. Teacher’s worth is literally left in the hands of our students. My worth isn’t even affected directly by my student but also the other teachers that come before me. I’m one teacher at the end of the educational career. Depending on who students have had and what they’ve learned before they reach my classroom heavily determines how much I can teach them in an allotted time. I’d much rather be evaluated on the quality of my content, my delivery, and observed relationship with students.

    Zhao has good ideas but currently living in Kansas where all schools are facing major budget cuts has be pessimistic of his theories. I think that he is on the right track about local autonomy but first major mind shifts will have to occur and that takes time. I’m not sure we are there as a society.

  • Trish Raymond

    I could not agree more with Zhao when he states that it is just one form of assessment. For us to truly see assessment as a form of accurate measurement, then the assessment must be able to measure other factors such as those mentioned by Zhao and beyond. Performance-based testing enables students to tap into their passions and apply them to their education, thereby opening their minds to creativity and imagination. It is these sort of outside factors that are not being measured or promoted within our schools. Moreover, if we do not foster creativity, passion and imagination then we will lose some the greatest minds of this generation by suppressing them during their adolescent years. I understand what Zhao is saying when he says that “teaching can be mandated, but learning cannot,” however this mindset is what is holding us back. Teaching and learning cannot be “mandated.” Teachers should be fostered, molded, trained and encouraged to become better each additional year they are in the classroom. Instead, they are sent off by themselves with a list of standards and are expected to deliver those standards within nine short months in the most exciting method possible. Sadly, this is almost impossible, and teachers are not mentored or fostered. Instead they are underpaid, unappreciated, and still manage to overcome the absurd concepts instilled by those who have not been in a classroom in decades or have never taught a class in their life.

  • Jiayi Li

    In this article, the author talked about How should learning be assessed? The author said that many people disagree with the high-stakes standardized tests in schools which cause students a lot of burdens on learning. According to a researcher, tests cannot measure some learning process such as creativity, persistence and collaboration. Also constant ranking and sorting create stress and make students less confident. The author said there is some other ways to assess students’ learning process and be low stakes. Those tests can help learners direct their attention to filling in the aps in their knowledge. For example, students may have presentations or writing articles about a topic. There is no time limitation on writing but they need to meet certain requirements.

    Teachers and parents are glad to see students keep learning interests and like to explore new things. Learning is a consistent process that students need to have during their life time. They are not just graduate from school and stop learning. Students will keep learning new things during work. Teachers need to provide students good learning environment and assessments to let students know how to learn new things. For example, in my classroom, I will provide students some topics and let them explore and discuss with each other.

  • Jen F

    Many good points in this post. Assessment *should* be more comprehensive in terms of evaluating more than just a narrow skill set, but in the era we live in that measures, ranks, and classifies others I don’t think we will be saying goodbye to standardized testing anytime soon. Using portfolios is a great way to measure and document growth in not only academic skills, but also harder to measure areas such as creativity, emotional/social skills, etc. They are a lot of work, but provide a much more accurate snapshot of learning and growth over time. We do need to look at what the purpose of assessment is and if the way we are doing things really is serving our students well. There is no perfect system, but there is definitely room for improvement.

    The notion that we should shift our focus to what we can control in evaluating our teachers, or what opportunities we provide is very different than our current thought process, I would be interested in the thoughts for how that can be accomplished. I’ve taught in different states and no place has had a wonderful way to evaluate teachers, especially for teachers who aren’t teaching in a “tested” grade level.

  • Leah

    Good read with great suggestions! My favorite quote relating to the purpose of assessment was, “Whose purpose does this serve? Is the learner trying to get better using assessment, … rather than just using it to judge?” This is the heart of the discussion for me. What purpose does an assessment serve? If students and teachers aren’t able to use an assessment to improve their practice and learning, then it is falling short. The authors suggestion that families explore if their schools are truly personalizing learning is a great starting point. In order for students to be successful, their individual learning needs, interests, and strengths should be sought out and built upon. This is difficult to assess in a standardized structure. The idea of developing students social and emotional growth resonates with me as well, this is often an after thought, particularly when the emphasis is on how well students perform on state, standardized assessments. Determining how to measure social and emotional growth is a challenge as well, this is often anecdotal in nature. However, educating families on what to look for, what questions to ask, and how to support their children in their education is a crucial, often overlooked, component.
    Holding educators responsible for the environment they provide is a great idea, this can be achieved through solid, reflective, reciprocal evaluation procedures that focus on growth. Teachers should be held accountable to providing personalized, growth centered learning environments that empower students to be successful.

  • Elizabeth Reicher

    Another excellent article. Historically educators have known what is right for their students, but decision makers do not have a clue. Zhao expresses the ongoing dilemma of the effects of inappropriate assessment on our learners. He suggests standardized assessments are killing creativity, holding back innovation, limiting educational experiences, and yet, educators are still expected to focus on inauthentic assessment instead of empowering our learners to guide their own learning through discovery. In our society our learners are force fed the facts without a avenue to express their own interpretation.
    Every year educators assess their student’s basic skills as a baseline on which to build appropriate instruction for all of their learners. They would do this even if it were not required. Their goal is to facilitate the learners growth. This is just good practice. Educators want their learners to grow, but growth can be shown in many different forms and our learners desperately need to discover the forms that best communicate their knowledge. Each child’s needs and characteristics are unique, shouldn’t their assessment highlight their success rather than their failure?

  • Kara Stucky

    I agree with this article that our society needs to re-examine the role of testing and accountability in education. We have placed so much emphasis on testing that we are missing the point. The goal of education should be to train students to “learn how to learn” while developing skills such as “creativity, persistence and collaboration” that are mentioned in the article.

    There are several inherent problems with the amount of emphasis that is placed standardized testing. One is that teachers feel forced to prepare students for a specific test, meaning that if it is not tested, it is not taught. I experienced this as a high school Geometry teacher in Texas. Students typically take Geometry in 10th grade but the 10th grade state test was comprised with approximately 80% algebraic concepts. It is important for students to retain their understanding of algebraic concepts from Algebra 1 to Algebra 2 but it should not be the focus of the year end assessment. This mismatch forced our district to remove proofs from the Geometry curriculum to allow for more practice with algebraic concepts.

    Another reason that focusing on standardized tests is problematic is that it creates a high stress environment for both teachers and students. Teachers feel pressure to make sure their students perform well on the assessments. Students receive this pressure to perform and the joy of learning is lost.

  • amyesrb

    One of the first things that struck me significantly from this article is the author’s and Yong Zhao’s points that learning and assessment needs to happen for each individual, meeting the “real learning needs of all students.” I agree with this idea and similarly as many others have commented about this article below, I believe that there does need to be a change in the way that we assess and evaluate our students. More and more diversity (all aspects of diversity) is apparent in classrooms across America today. How is it fair to evaluate every student, from all different backgrounds and with different interests and needs, on the same assessment test? I had the amazing experience of teaching at a public middle school on the Army base in Hawaii; I met military “brat” kids who have traveled all over the world, and have more life experiences than I have in my thirties. I had a very difficult time explaining to them the importance of passing the Hawaii State Assessment when they would only be in school in Hawaii for maybe three years total. For my experience there, this state assessment did not “meet the needs of individual students.”

    I also really like the “Steps for Identifying Needs” in the article.

    “Personalizing learning to meet individual needs, with a broad and flexible curriculum”

    Again, individual needs, and I love the use of broad and flexible here.

    “Is school an engaging place – do students want to go to school?”

    As a teacher, I would hate if I knew my students did not want to come to school. I always tried to make my classroom inviting, fun, and a motivating place to be to learn.

    “Do the teachers care about the development of the whole child?”

    I certainly hope so, and not only caring about their students “passing the test.” I do agree that it is important for teachers to help develop students’ social, emotional, and physical well-being, at all grade levels. I taught middle school, aka hormones, know-it-alls, and drama. This is an important time in students’ developmental years; if all I cared about was their results on a test, I probably should not expect to see great learning or achievement happening.

    Last, I really like how the author points out the concern of what purpose some assessments serve, and if such assessments are providing meaningful feedback to the students. “Whose purpose does this serve? Is the learner trying to get better using assessment?” This reminds
    me of another article that I recently read by Carol Ann Tomlinson, The Bridge Between Today’s Lesson and Tomorrow. In this article, Tomlinson focuses on how formative assessments can improve both teaching and learning, and its power to provide feedback that “results in a student thinking about how to improve.” I agree that all assessments should have a meaningful purpose, guiding each individual student to understanding their learning and pushing them on the correct paths to improvement and achievement!


Luba Vangelova

Luba Vangelova’s work has appeared in numerous print, online and broadcast media outlets, including The New York Times, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Salon. She is also working on a book about self-directed learning. Her web site is She also posts on Twitter and on her official Facebook page.

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