Unlike the top-performing countries on the 2012 PISA, the United States stands out for the amount of external testing it requires for all students. As the chart below shows, the United States is the only country among this set to require annual testing in primary and middle schools in reading and mathematics. A more typical pattern among the top-performers is a required gateway exam, or an exam that allows a student to move on to the next phase of education, at the end of primary school, the end of lower secondary school and the end of upper secondary school. This is true of Canada (Ontario), China (Shanghai), Estonia, Poland and Singapore. In some of these cases, the secondary school exams are used to determine placement in the next level of schooling such as in Singapore and Shanghai where the lower school-leaving exam determines placement in upper secondary school. And in Poland, Shanghai and Singapore the upper secondary academic exam functions as an admission exam for university. This differs from the United States where annual tests are used primarily for school and teacher accountability purposes.
As the United States embarks on implementing tests to measure students’ mastery of the Common Core State Standards, it would be wise to keep in mind these very different models of not only test schedules, but format and purpose. The tests in the top-performing countries come at key gateways when students advance from one school to another and have a purpose that is clearly understood by students, parents and teachers.