5 Differences Between Standardized Tests in America and Switzerland

Photo by Ben Mullins on Unsplash Student taking a test

Standardized tests are a fact of life for all students, but how do they differ from one country to another — particularly for globally mobile students in international schools? My experiences as a special education educator tell an interesting story.

While living in Washington State, after having taught special education for many years, I had the pleasure of teaching fifth grade for three years. Fifth graders are my favorite. They are starting to come into their sense of self, forming their own opinions, and beginning to ask deep questions. 

I especially loved teaching history to fifth graders because this is when big connections started to form. Most can put themselves in the shoes of their historical counterparts and imagine what it might have been like for the first time. This meant profound questions about slavery and war, among many other topics. It was an honor to go through this time of academic awakening for these students.

However, it is also when testing — standardized testing in particular — started to become a part of their vernacular and invade their thoughts. Premature conversations about college were starting, which meant thinking about scores on admissions tests such as the ACT and SAT.

Standardized Testing in the US 

Standardized tests take place in the spring in Washington state. These tests were hyped for quite some time before the testing week, and teachers, parents, and students seemed rattled as they approached. 

It was no wonder there was so much worry and anxiety.  Weeks prior to the test, teachers spent a lot of time reinforcing test-taking skills and giving practice tests. However, the tides were changing, and as I was leaving the American public school teaching environment in 2013, more and more parents were opting their children out of these tests.

A quick internet search leads one to find many reasons parents opt their children out of standardized testing. For example:

  • Loss of classroom learning time
  • The results provide no benefit to students or teachers 
  • They are seen as a breach of data privacy

Parents can even print and sign form letters to opt-out of testing.

Standardized Testing in Switzerland

Here in Switzerland, when our daughter was in 8th grade, she completed her first standardized test. If we were still living in the US, she would had nearly six or seven under her belt at that point. At that point, I hadn’t thought about standardized testing much since moving to Switzerland and was interested to see how it would work. 

Watching her go through this process, I couldn’t help but notice some stark differences between the way US and Swiss students experience standardized tests.

1. Standardized testing does not disrupt the Swiss school atmosphere 

No extra recesses. 

No condescending letters sent home describing how to make a healthy breakfast.

No parent volunteers providing elaborate snacks or decorating with positive affirmation banners and mylar balloons. 

No class parent competition to see who can throw the most elaborate party at the end of the testing week.

2. School curriculum goes on as normal during testing

No teaching to the test. 

No discussions about tips and tricks for how to take a standardized test. 

No practice tests. 

No special workbook which must be used at least 30 minutes a day to help prepare the students.

Students have regularly scheduled lessons and assessments during the week of the test. Families attend a one-hour parent night to explain the test format, purpose, and test date. 

3. Standardized test results are immediate

No results showing up 3-6 months after the test. 

No waiting so long that students forget they even took a test.

Students take the test every morning for one week, then bring their results home over the lunch break on Friday — the same day they complete the test!

4. Testing feedback is used to help direct a conversation about strengths and weaknesses

No results put into students’ files, never to see the light of day. 

No results sent directly to parents to let them interpret on their own.

A joint parent and student meeting is scheduled within two weeks of the test to discuss what electives would best serve the student’s interests in 9th grade.

5. Results are not used to measure the success of a teacher or school

No pulling funds if the school doesn’t reach a certain point on the bell curve. 

No discussions with the principal if your class performed lower than their counterparts.

Results are not published and not used to make school funding decisions. They are seen as individual measures used to make individual decisions.

The bottom line is that there are going to be standardized tests in a student’s life. Entrance into an elite school path, university entrance exams, and annual spot checks are all examples. But now that I’ve seen an example of how the Swiss school system uses standardized tests, the methods and pomp surrounding the US tests seem even more absurd.

The Swiss school system is not perfect, but the US could learn something from their approach.

Yes, put the test results to good use.

Yes, remove the link between test scores and school funding.

Yes, a standardized test is only a dipstick test for one point in time.

Testing can be a positive — whether it’s designed to track a student’s progress, determine the need for support services, or assess for admission into international schools. Let’s make the experience positive as well. 

Interested in making standardized testing more productive and effective in your school? I specialize in helping international schools develop more inclusive systems and processes. Contact me to learn more.