Taiwan has upper hand in its success on MSPAP

The Education Beat

Experiment: Stronger curricula and a supportive culture may explain the better results by pupils in the Republic of China on Maryland's science and math tests.

March 15, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

In a quiet experiment paid for by the Republic of China, a representative sample of Taiwanese pupils took the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program math and science tests each year from 1994 to 1998.

The Chinese kids generally beat the socks off their Maryland counterparts in grades three, five and eight, especially in the higher grades. But that was almost beside the point, says state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

The experiment's purpose wasn't to make international comparisons, Grasmick says. The Taiwanese wanted to see how a test based on performance, one emphasizing critical thinking and analytical skills over rote learning, works in their highly regulated and centralized educational system.

The Marylanders wanted to see how valid the MSPAP tests would be if taken by foreign pupils in their language -- but still assessing the universal skills needed in math and science.

The Taiwan experiment had several fascinating wrinkles:

MSPAP was translated into Mandarin Chinese and scored by Chinese educators trained by the Americans. Since the Maryland test requires a good deal of writing, it's possible that Chinese third-graders did relatively less well because they were still learning to write to a certain level in Mandarin, an ideographic script that does not employ an alphabet.

Chinese eighth-graders take a national exit test that determines where they'll go to high school. It's possible that the older Chinese pupils excelled on MSPAP because they were already prepping for the national tests.

The Chinese did little rewriting of MSPAP beyond changing distance and weight measurements to metrics. So for those five years, 3,000 to 5,000 Chinese kids each year got a taste of the land of pleasant living.

"Their leaders felt that they didn't need to change the test," says Gary Heath, a Maryland Education Department official who participated in the experiment. "Their attitude was one of great confidence. They said, `Our kids will excel anyway.' "

And so they did, without, remember, several months of preparation for the test, as Maryland pupils typically go through.

Not long after Taiwan and Maryland ended their experiment, the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, a worldwide test designed to compare student achievement, reported similar results: Foreign students' performance generally improves as they get older; Americans go in the opposite direction.

The Taiwanese school system -- like other Asian educational systems -- is often said not to foster the kind of creative problem-solving stressed by MSPAP. But the tests showed that the Taiwan system's focus on achievement paid off.

"What we found," says Grasmick, "is that the Chinese curriculum, like the Japanese curriculum, [isn't] a mile wide and an inch deep. This experiment showed us how much work we have to do, especially in middle school. And it showed us that perhaps we need to tighten our curriculum."

Despite their students' success, Taiwanese officials decided not to use performance testing more widely in their schools.

"In math and science," says Jessie Pollack, a Maryland testing expert, "the foreign kids knock the socks off most American kids, and it doesn't seem to matter what instrument you use to test them. They're clearly doing something right."

That something, say the Marylanders, is to value education -- and educators.

"They have higher expectations for all children," says Heath. "Their expectations are dramatically different. The National Taiwan Normal University draws its teacher candidates from the top 5 percent of high school graduates.

"Teachers are among the highest-paid workers in Taiwan. They can retire after 20 years with full benefits."

A network of afternoon "cram" schools also helps students prepare for the national tests.

Grasmick paid a visit to Taiwan during the experiment. "What struck me was the way teachers were revered," she says. "There's such a seriousness of purpose, and the children are respectful and disciplined."

Students spend cerebral day at medical school's event

The University of Maryland Medical School held a "brain fair" yesterday.

High school students from around the state visited the school's downtown campus to learn about memory, emotions, intelligence, sleep, pain, aging, depression, sensation, addiction, stress and epilepsy -- and to compete in a "National Brain Bee."

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