U.S. Tests Teens A Lot, But Worldwide, Exam Stakes Are Higher American students take an alphabet soup of mandatory and voluntary exams: SAT, PISA, AP. Sure it's a lot, but in places like Japan and England, tests are incredibly high-stress and life-defining.

U.S. Tests Teens A Lot, But Worldwide, Exam Stakes Are Higher

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Twenty to 30 tests in one semester is a lot of tests and a lot of stress. But is life any easier for kids overseas? Well, Cory Turner, of the NPR Ed Team, set out to investigate.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Let's do some selective globetrotting, shall we? First stop...


TURNER: ...England. Our tour guide is Dylan William, an emeritus professor of educational assessment at the University of London. He studies testing.

DYLAN WILLIAM: At the age of 16, almost every child in England will take probably about 15 or 20 substantial examinations.

TURNER: And they're all part of one, big test. How well kids do helps determine whether they finish high school - not college, high school. Talk about high-stakes testing. For those who do go on, they get two more years of high school. And each of those years ends with another big round of tests, saving the worst for last.

WILLIAM: And your grades on those examinations will determine which universities you're offered places at.

TURNER: Unlike in the U.S., William says, grade point average won't save an English kid who has bad test day. GPA just doesn't matter.

Next stop on our testing tour...


TURNER: ...Finland.

PASI SAHLBERG: We have this one and only standardized examination, at the very end of the high school.

TURNER: Pasi Sahlberg is a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and an expert on testing in Finland. He says Finnish teens have just one test to worry about in high school, but it's a big one.

SAHLBERG: Students normally do about six of these one-day, six-hour exams for their examination.

TURNER: So that one test can mean some 40 hours of actual test-taking. Sahlberg himself went through the system and remembers the stakes.

SAHLBERG: It was very clear for everybody that, you know, unless you do very well with this one examination that, you know, some of these dreams that you may have for the future will become very difficult to fulfill.

TURNER: Let me paraphrase that: Bomb this test, and kiss your dreams goodbye. Students' stress doesn't end there, either. Sahlberg says Finnish universities often have their own entrance exams, too.

SAHLBERG: OK, last stop...


TURNER: ...Japan. Akihiko Takahashi is an associate professor of math education at DePaul University. And he knows the Japanese testing system well.

AKIHIKO TAKAHASHI: OK, in high school, there's no standardized test.

TURNER: You heard it hear, folks - no big, white-knuckle test in Japan.

TAKAHASHI: But instead, each college require additional exam.

TURNER: Nah, there's always a catch. As in Finland, Japanese universities generally require their own exams. And it turns out, many Japanese students also have to take an exam just to get into high school.

TAKAHASHI: Yeah, it's a lot of pressure. Well, you know, if you do not pass exam you cannot go anywhere, even high school.

TURNER: Takahashi himself remembers the anxiety.

TAKAHASHI: Yeah, somehow I survived.


TURNER: Japan, Finland, England, France, Germany, China, Singapore - Dylan William, of the University of London, says that when it comes to getting into college, the story is pretty much the same.

WILLIAM: This is true for most countries apart from the U.S. There's no teacher contribution to the decision, if you like. Basically, it's how well you do on those exams.

TURNER: In the U.S., only about half of states have anything like a high-stakes high school exit exam. And American colleges and universities do consider report cards, teacher recommendations, and don't forget those obligatory application essays. In fact, hundreds of U.S. schools no longer require test scores at all.

So do American teens take more tests than kids overseas? It's distinctly possible. But those kids overseas would argue, when it comes to stress, it's not the quantity of tests that matters, but what's at stake when the clock starts ticking.

Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington.

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