Social Expectations of Learning – the Culture of Testing

Social Expectations of Learning – the Culture of Testing

What is a culture of testing?

High-stakes exams often determine learners’ futures: transition, graduation, entrance to higher education, to better schools, or to better jobs. In some cases, the stakes are so high that examinations can dominate thinking about the purpose and nature of schooling. This leads to a ‘culture of testing’, one in which high-stakes standardized testing is accepted as a foundational practice in education and shapes how education is understood in society and used by its stakeholders (Smith, 2016). This focus on ‘high scores’ may be undermining other fundamental aspects of learning that are often not captured in tests and examinations, and questions whether education systems have lost sight of the true value and purpose of education. What drives some societies to place such an emphasis on examinations, and how does this pressure affect learners in those societies?

UNESCO Bangkok regional study

UNESCO Bangkok commissioned nine country case studies in the Asia-Pacific region (Bangladesh, Fiji, India, Japan, Kazakhstan, Republic of Korea, Philippines, Tonga and Viet Nam) to examine the manifestations of a ‘culture of testing’, the relationship between sociocultural factors, education and examinations, and how this ‘culture of testing’ both shapes and is shaped by education policies and systems.

Perceptions of the value of examinations were linked to the reputation that comes from obtaining good results: better schools, better career paths and better opportunities in life. Social mobility and future economic opportunity are among the main motivations of students and their families. Family plays a particularly strong role in the development of learners’ motivations, perceptions and behaviour towards examinations and educational success. In many cases, education is a source of family pride and honour, bringing joy and happiness to the parents. And to hold their place in society (or advance), parents and families expect students to succeed and perform well.

For example, in the Philippines, it is the ‘job’ of children to study hard, pass all examinations and get a good grade. For the parents, good performance in a test or having a good performance in class is an indication of the relation between the ‘true meaning of hardship and success in life’. In this way, students are fulfilling their basic role in the family if they study hard. And in Viet Nam, parents indicated the significance of examinations in helping to identify their child's learning ability so that they could make appropriate decisions about their career paths and pathways for further study. Parents also noted that it affects public appreciation of the family's academic prowess.

This brings pressure and motivation, both positive and negative to students. When students do succeed, families will often rejoice and celebrate, as well as prepare gifts and rewards for students. In Fiji and Tonga, parents affirmed their support for their children’s preparation for exams and looked forward to the examination results. Success in examinations is very important, and it brings joy and pride to families who then celebrate with feasting and prayer, either at home or with the community. Yet, high levels of competition for grades and spaces in schools can place a great deal of stress and anxiety on learners, their families and teachers. All case studies indicated that learners worry about performing in exams or in school, and many are very worried of disappointing their family and teachers.

People readily accept and acknowledge the importance that examinations play in the ‘socialization’ and ‘education’ of young learners. The combination of these sociocultural factors and perceptions has cemented the role of examinations in education and learning, embedding testing into culture and society.

These perceptions of teachers, parents, learners and the general public in turn provide the conditions for high-stakes exams to influence the curriculum, teaching and learning materials, and pedagogy. Many people find exams to be trusted and reliable measures. Evidence from several of the case studies highlighted the relationship between examinations and education policy. In this instance, the perception of stakeholders plays a significant role in determining how governments shape education policy. Several of the case studies (e.g. Fiji, India and Japan) highlighted how governments had eliminated high-stakes examinations due to the overwhelming pressures students faced, only to reinstate them due to public pressure in favour of examinations. Others indicated that they have been seeking measures to reduce the burden placed on students by examinations (Republic of Korea and Viet Nam), while recognizing that the importance placed by students, teachers and parents on examinations is still very high. The reliance on these exams has been built into values over time, and as a result, education policy becomes a reflection of these values.

In addition, teachers and schools place a great emphasis on examinations as they greatly impact their reputation and perceived effectiveness. As a result, to secure good results the teachers are often forced to teach to the test, and to limit classroom practices to subjects on the examinations.

The pressure to achieve academic success can come at a cost. Learners are increasingly unhappy and stressed, and the pressure to achieve academically and obtain high scores in tests and exams is seen as one of the main causes. Whether achievement is of more value than other competencies and learner well-being depends on how different societies interpret the value of education. Examinations do not need to be abolished, but the negative aspects can be diminished. Indeed, evaluation systems and assessments can be both of learning and for learning. By examining the relationship between society, culture and the values that they place on examinations and academic success, this study helps us to better understand what drives societies to rely on these tests as a measure of success, and how we may be able to balance societies perceived need with quality learning outcomes.

The final report will be published in January 2018.


Written by:

Mark Manns, UNESCO Bangkok

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Mark Manns []