Just as President Obama steps back from student testing and governors coast to coast retreat from high-stakes accountability in schools, China’s leaders are pushing to enrich their national exams and nudge teachers away from rote instruction, aiming to nurture cognitively nimble and socially committed graduates.
No Child Left Behind—for all its blemishes and endless rules—did signal stiffer expectations for America’s schools, setting ambitious standards that they needed to meet in order to dodge sanctions. But the policy pendulum now swings back toward a lenient approach, enabling states to forge their own accountability tools, defining their own learning goals and tests.
New York eased expectations for students last month, as state officials revealed plans to simplify its math test, because pupil scores had fallen too low. Massachusetts, once setting the highest bar for pupil proficiency, has reversed its support for standards. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles school board has proclaimed that homework should not exceed 30 minutes of effort each night for high-school students.
China has now reshaped its national exam to focus on a broader range of topics and cognitive skills and, in turn, move away from teacher-dominated lecturing. The new test requires that students employ complex analytical skills, mixed with broader knowledge across various subjects. Performance in high-school courses—classes that are chosen by the student—will count in college admissions for the first time, beyond achievement on math, Mandarin, and English assessments. And top universities, sifting through applications, must take into account service to one’s local community.