A field filled with desks with test takers at each one, dressed in white and black. The field is green, red, and white.
The ubiquity of the exam (Stinger / Reuters)

Exams Around the World

Pen, paper, and a time limit

Examinations, tests, assessments—whatever the nomenclature, it’s hard to imagine schooling without them. Testing is the most popular method of quantifying individuals’ knowledge, often with the intention of objectively measuring aptitude and ability.

Test-taking is a dreaded experience that the country’s kids and young adults share with their counterparts across the globe. The ritual at its core doesn’t vary much: Students sit at a table or a computer desk (or sometimes, as shown below, on the floor), pencil and/or mouse in hand, the clock ticking away mercilessly. America for its part is home to what The Atlantic has described as an “alphabet soup” of standardized tests, including: the NAEP, SBAC, PARCC, ACT, and, of course, SAT. Testing has become increasingly notorious in the U.S., to the point that tens of thousands of parents across the country have opted their kids out of standardized tests.

In America, perhaps all the testing helps explain why “all-nighters” and Adderall abuse are the norm on many college campuses. But there is an unhealthy obsession with acing the test abroad, too. Fraudulent college applications are reportedly rampant among students in China—the birthplace of the standardized test—aspiring to attend school in the U.S. And hundreds of people in India were recently arrested in connection with a massive cheating scandal. (Many of those arrested were believed to be family members of the 10th-grade test-takers.) Meanwhile, as NPR has reported, “the relentless focus on education and exams is often to blame” for suicide among teens in South Korea, the leading cause of death for that demographic.

Test-taking appears to be more prominent in certain parts of the world, such as Asia, than in others. I struggled to find photos in the wire-service archives from Latin American countries—perhaps because of cultural differences in education or politics or socioeconomic factors. According to Gabriel Sanchez Zinny, the author of Educación 3.0: The Struggle for Talent in Latin America, most of the region’s countries refuse to participate in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s global-proficiency exam. (American students for their part have consistently performed quite terribly on it.) Some experts reason that the countries want to avoid embarrassing themselves with potentially low rankings, though others point to skepticism over the methodology. As Sanchez Zinny recently reported for the BBC: “How do we measure the quality of education in Latin America against global standards if there is an unwillingness to take part in international tests?”

Still, whether it’s youngsters in Aleppo or pet groomers in Changsha, testing—from pre-exam anxiety to post-exam euphoria—is something that oddly enough, seems to unite us all.

Cadets from the National Cadet Corps take part in an examination on open ground in the northern Indian city of Allahabad on February 5, 2012. More than 2,000 cadets on took part in the examination for upper grades. (Jitendra Prakash / Reuters)
In this May 1, 2012 photo, students take notes during an Advanced Placement government class at the Academy for College and Career Exploration in Baltimore. That May, 2 million students took 3.7 million end-of-year AP exams—figures well over double those from a decade ago. (Patrick Semansky / AP)
Pakistani religious students sit on the floor to take their annual exams at the Islamic seminary, Jamia Binoria, in Karachi, Pakistan, on Saturday, June 8, 2013. Binoria is one of the model seminaries and modified its curriculum, adding contemporary subjects like computer, mathematics, and science. (Fareed Khan / AP)
Students draw sketches during an art college entrance exam in Jinan, Shandong province, on February 10, 2014. According to local media, more than 8,000 students took the exam that day. (China Daily / Reuters)
A student wears a headlight, due to electricity shortage, as he takes his year-end examinations at a school in Aleppo's al-Sha'ar district on June 5, 2013. (Muzaffar Salaman / Reuters)
Afghan National Army officers take an exam during their inauguration ceremony at the Afghan Army Academy on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, October 23, 2013. Army soldiers have easier access to education through this academy. (Rahman Gul / AP)
Parents pray during a candle-light vigil for their children's success in the college-entrance exam at Bongeun Buddhist temple in Seoul, South Korea, Saturday, November 2, 2013. About 650,000 high-school seniors and graduates across the country take the College Scholastic Ability Test. (Ahn Young-joon / AP)
A student ties his wooden votive picture on a pile of others in the courtyard of Yushima Tenjin shrine in Tokyo Saturday, January 19, 2008. During exam season, students and parents make pilgrimage to the shrine, known as a guardian for scholarship, to wish for success in exams. (Koji Sasahara / AP)
A student from University College Oxford gets "trashed" after finishing her exams in Oxford, southern England, June 7, 2013. Trashing is a practice at Oxford University in which students have all manner of messy items thrown at them by their contemporaries after finishing their exams. (Stefan Wermuth / Reuters)
Groomers cut hair of pet dogs as they attend a pet-barber qualification test in Changsha, Hunan province, April 15, 2015.  (Darwin Zhou / Reuters)
Students gather at the Cestos High School to take their year-end exams, which could advance them to the next higher grade or graduation. (David Trotman Wilkins / Flickr)
Pupils prepare at the start of a mathematics exam at the Harris Academy South Norwood in South East London, March 2, 2012. (Luke McGregor / Reuters)
An Afghan teacher stands in front of pupils during a year-end examination in a school in the village of Sangarkhel in mountains of Wardak Province, Afghanistan, July 7, 2009.  (Shamil Zhumatov / Reuters)
Contestants in the National Spelling Bee take the written exam on computers in Oxon Hill, Maryland, on May 29, 2012. (Jacquelyn Martin / AP)
Emma Donne, a pupil at Godolphin & Latymer School, celebrates after receiving her A-level results in Hammersmith, West London, August 17, 2006. (Alessia Pierdomenico / Reuters)

Exams, of course, are often tied to both the short- and long-term success of the people who take them. It’s no wonder then that students (and parents) go to such great lengths to ensure a good result. In India’s cheating scandal earlier this year, parents and relatives were literally stacked on top of each other clinging to the outside walls of a high-story school building to hand the test answers to their children. And China is responding to its aforementioned cheating epidemic by using drones to spy on would-be offenders.

So what’s the future of exams? There’s little consensus. Some think that technology—particularly the ability to track and respond to students’ performance year round—will be the death knell, theoretically obviating the need for standardized tests. Perhaps the competency-based software could provide a more complete picture of an individual’s knowledge, testing critics say, not just a mere snapshot of how skilled he or she is at rote memorization.

Last year, Tony Little, the headmaster of the highly regarded Eton College in England (whose alumni include David Cameron and Prince Harry) famously derided London’s standardized-exam system as “unimaginative” and “archaic.” That system, he said, has “changed little from Victorian times” and “obliges students to sit alone at their desks in preparation for a world in which, for much of the time, they will need to work collaboratively.”