Children Are More Than Test Scores

Conference News Online
March 2012

In comparing and contrasting education in the United States and Asia, Yong Zhao, an author and thought leader in global education, detailed how Asian schools have focused on the basic curriculum and nothing else, while American schools have developed the whole child. But as the United States seeks to match or surpass the test results of Asian countries, the focus on the whole child is slipping.

Race to the Top, which Zhao labeled as a “race to self destruction,” is the latest U.S. program to erode children’s creativity, Zhao said. China doesn’t have entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs because its education system doesn’t teach them to think for themselves. Countries with higher test scores have lower entrepreneurship. While the Asian children have learned a lot, they may not have learned how to learn. According to the data, America is not in decline, Zhao explained, as he presented many examples through decades with America being compared to whatever country was giving it the latest scare.

Unfortunately, we are measuring the wrong things, according to Zhao. Even medication, which is good for you, has side effects and can be poisonous. Race to the Top doesn’t publicize its side effects. These reading programs should say, “Could cause lack of interest in reading,” Zhao said.

Americans believe everything is of value, but it must be prescribed by the government for it to be valued in Asia. The talent show is America’s best kept secret to show creativity, confidence, and happiness, Zhao said.

Zhao also addressed variation in children’s development, a topic that is ignored in the high-stakes testing environment. “Children are like popcorn,” he said. “Some pop early and some pop late. We want all children to be taught based upon their expectations, not a state standard.”

The structural strengths of the American education system are its local control and professional autonomy. We may have many different ways of doing things but that is what makes it work. If one person is in control and what they prescribe doesn’t work for Michael Phelps or Steve Jobs or Lady Gaga, then we would never have our entertainers, athletes, or entrepreneurs.

Zhao was adamant that you can’t learn independence and social skills by cramming for the test. These skills are learned at sleepovers and by asking questions. If the Asians are so good at what they do, then we should let them prepare their children for the labor workforce and let us do what we do best and prepare entrepreneurs, designers, story tellers, and people who can synthesize, Zhao suggested. If we can do this, then Americans will be the ones who will be able to take risks and have passion, creativity, and motivation. You can only be great by pursuing your passion with lots of practice and a great teacher to coach you in the proper ways of what you want to do, according to Zhao.

We must stop chasing children’s deficits and work with students’ passions. Students will be engaged if they are in a project-based learning environment and are able to explore and use technology. We must trust our children to be unique. We must not slip backwards and kill our kids’ creativity.

Zhao ended by telling principals to stand up and fight for our children because children are more than test scores.

Yong Zhao’s slides can be found at More information is available at

—Edward Elsea, principal, Hillcrest School, Lebanon, Missouri

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