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Education solutions from abroad for chronic U.S. school problems

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This is a question Singapore's leaders had already picked up on when they made the arts a cornerstone of the city-state's effort to boost creativity and innovation. Already, Singapore is pointing to correlations some researchers have documented between arts study and academic success, even as tighter budgets and teaching to standardized tests have forced US schools to cut arts curriculum.

"We're the only country in the world that tests every child every year," says Linda Darling-Hammond, founder of the Stanford (University) Center for Opportunity Policy in Education and the School Redesign Network. "We attached high stakes [to these tests] so people thought they could only pay attention to that," to the detriment of science, social studies, art, music, or physical education.

Essays show more than multiple choice

Province-wide school systems in Australia offer compelling models as the US develops a new set of tests tied to the Common Core State Standards that all but five states are adopting. In New South Wales and Victoria, teachers use a variety of means to assess their students' knowledge and abilities, but externally administered tests only take place in Grades 3, 5, 7, and 9 with a comprehensive state exam in Grade 12.

Their high-stakes exams use few multiple-choice questions and rely primarily on essays. Teachers equip students with facts and formulas, yes, but they have to also teach them to analyze, extrapolate, and communicate. It's the difference between drilling them to pencil-in the bubble indicating Plato was the author of "Republic" and engendering the skills needed to explain why and how his writings were influential.

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