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February 1, 2003
Vol. 60
No. 5

Research Link / A Global Perspective on Student Accountability

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In the United States, student assessment and accountability have become the watchwords of education. A sampling of some international views on tracking student performance helps to put U.S. trends in perspective.

Assessment in Selected Countries

England. Silvernail (1996) found that schools in England provide multiple measures of performance that serve multiple purposes. Schools assess student progress through both a national examination and teacher-made tests when students reach the ages of 7, 11, 14, and 16. These exams are primarily used to measure the effectiveness of the schools in delivering the national curriculum. All schools must follow nationally prescribed content and pedagogic methods and set targets for individual pupil learning goals (Whetton, Twist, & Sainsbury, 2000). Gipps, Clarke, and McCallum (1998) assert that this system places too little emphasis on assessment for learning and too much on assessment of learning.
  • At the beginning of grades 3, 6, and 9 for diagnostic and planning purposes;
  • At the end of grade 9 to measure student attainment; and
  • At the end of the high school program to determine students' professional and education futures.
Although French educators complain about the complexity of the high-stakes, end-of-high-school exam, the public and the media support it (Fowler, 2001).
Hong Kong. Cheng (1999) investigated national student assessments that Hong Kong schools use to assign students to primary and secondary schools and programs, and discovered that these national examinations dictate classroom instruction. According to Cheng, Hong Kong's education leaders are aware that “if it is not examined, it won't be taught” and give much thought to how they can use the examination process to bring positive changes to the system.
China. Feng (1999) reports that both the government and the public consider the National College Entrance Examinations (NCEE) as crucial for China's political, economic, and education development. The common people of China depend on the NCEE to equalize their opportunities for an elite education.
Japan. Students in Japan apply to the high schools that they want to attend and get admitted on the basis of their performance on the school's high-stakes examinations. The only national examination in Japan's public education system is the college entrance examination conducted by the Ministry of Education every January (Postlethwaite, 1995). Students with high scores on the common national exam must then take individual university exams at the schools that they wish to attend. The time that Japanese adolescents devote to high school and university examination preparation—attending special cram schools, studying with tutors, taking repeated mock exams, and studying late into evening—is sometimes referred to as shiken jigoku (“exam hell”) (U.S. Department of Education, 1998).

International Assessments

Although the lack of consistency in large-scale, standardized student tests in individual countries makes it impossible to use national examinations to compare student achievement among different countries, several international collaborative assessment projects exist. One of these, the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), conducted in 1995, assessed students in mathematics and science and tested students from many nations. It also reported local school district student performance in the United States instead of simply looking at average student performance across the entire nation. This analysis showed that student achievement in the individual districts within the United States reflected nearly the full range of achievement found internationally. Some of the U.S. school districts performed similarly to some of the highest-scoring countries (International Study Center, 1999).
  • In reading literacy, the mean score was 500. New Zealand scored the highest (529), Mexico the lowest (422), and the United States just above the mean (504).
  • In mathematics, the mean score was 500. Japan scored the highest (557), Mexico the lowest (387), and the United States just below the mean (493).
  • In science, the mean score was 502. Korea scored the highest (552), Mexico the lowest (422), and the United States just below the mean (499) (OECD Programme for International Assessment, n.d.).
This summary shows that there is no uniform approach to student assessment in different nations. However, nations are beginning to collaborate to produce international comparative studies of student performance.

Cheng, L. (1999). Changing assessment: Washback on teacher perceptions and actions. Teaching and Teacher Education, 15(3), 253–271.

Feng, Y. (1999). National college entrance examinations: The dynamics of political centralism in China's elite education. Boston University Journal of Education, 181(1), 39–57.

Fowler, F. (2001). Testing French style. The Clearing House, 74(4), 197–200.

Gipps, C., Clarke, S., & McCallum, B. (1998, April). The role of teachers in national assessment in England. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Diego, California (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 419 836)

International Study Center, Lynch School of Education, Boston College. (1999). A bridge to school improvement: 1999 TIMSS benchmarking, executive summary [Online]. Available:

OECD Programme for International Student Assessment. (n.d.). Summary of first results from PISA [Online]. Available:

Postlethwaite, T. (Ed.). (1995). International encyclopedia of national systems of education (2nd ed.). Tarrytown, NY: Pergamon.

Silvernail, D. (1996). The impact of England's national curriculum and assessment system on classroom practice: Potential lessons for American reformers. Educational Policy, 10(1), 46–62.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement. (1998). The educational system in Japan: Case study findings. Washington, DC: Author.

Whetton, C., Twist, E., & Sainsbury, M. (2000). National tests and target setting: Maintaining consistent standards. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting, New Orleans, Louisiana (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 441 849)

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