A new brief from NCEE explores how, in the wake of the pandemic, education systems both in the U.S. and abroad are harnessing innovation and digital technologies to deepen and accelerate learning for all students.

By Jackie Kraemer

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.  In his edweek.org blog, NCEE President Marc Tucker has written extensively about the challenges associated with this type of accountability scheme.  In addition to administering census testing at only three or fewer points in a student’s school career, the top-performers typically test a broader range of subjects than English and mathematics, the subjects tested annually in the United States.

How tests are used is also different among the high performers.  South Korea and Japan test only for diagnostic purposes in the primary schools, and South Korea continues to test for diagnostic purposes through 10th grade.  It is at the secondary level that they introduce the high stakes exams for students, with Japanese students required to take an entrance exam for upper secondary school and students in both countries required to take tests at the end of upper secondary school that will determine what kind of higher education institution they can enter.  These tests are recognized as very high pressure for students and both countries are trying to address that issue.  In both Korea and Japan, some students enter a vocational training system at the upper secondary level and take tests to qualify for vocational credentials rather than the tests for entry into university.

Hong Kong and Finland have no required testing until the end of upper secondary school.  Taiwan is a bit of a hybrid, with no required testing in primary school, but a Basic Competency Test at the end of lower secondary (along with three required tests a year in each of three subjects during lower secondary) that determines admission to upper secondary school.

Below are three charts showing the required testing in the United States and the ten top-performing countries on PISA at the primary and secondary levels, as well as a chart of exams required for those who wish to enter higher education.


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.  While we do not advocate using tests to track students into particular vocational or academic pathways, placing stakes on the exams for students certainly impacts how hard they work in school.