Testing regimes and productivity
There is a large literature on the effect of testing on learning, but as far as I know very little of it has been applied to Iran’s concour. How we evaluate students has obvious effects on the students’ incentives to learn and teacher’s incentives to teach. In market economies where employers have a voice in what is worth learning and what is not, because they have to pay for it when they hire workers, the effect of testing on incentives is not paramount. Teachers may teach to the test, but parents and students know what is important to learn for later life– holding a job with good pay and getting promoted. Not so in Iran.
When employers play a strong role in motivating learning, everything that matters for production comes into play, even play itself. Sport, arts, and play are well known to contribute to individual growth in ways that make people more productive. I think this is a reason for the phenomenal support of parents for sports for small children in the US (“soccer moms”). Parents in the US (where I have done my parenting) realize that there is not one test that matters for their child’s future, but thousands. So spending a lot of time and resources in preparing for the SAT exams (the US equivalent of Iran’s concour) is not very productive. Even the test taking skills are not very worthwhile to learn. Most of the thousands of tests that I am referring to here are administered not by machines but by people, many of them employers who could not care less what a person has memorized.
US universities, where 50% of American high school graduates are headed, reinforce this system by not relying too much on test scores in their admission decisions. It may involve subjective (not the same as arbitrary) factors into the admission decision, but they think it is better than the alternative. Who are they? I think they are parents, schools and employers. The system is part of the US social contract. Universities spend lots of resources on the admission departments and try hard to keep nepotism down.
In Iran fear of nepotism (parti bazi) prevents people from seriously considering reducing the role of computer generated scores and increasing the weight of non-testable skills and personality traits in selection into universities. Employers do not have much to say about this at present. Public employers have to follow rules set by Iran’s Civil Service Employment Code and private employers, the larger ones, the rules set in the Labor Law of 1990. Both sets of rules discourage (sometimes prevent) employers from taking a chance on good character in place of degrees, test scores, and rank in the concour.
Can Iran move away from this system and in the direction of the system in the US and other advanced economies? Some deep and perhaps touchy questions arise. Can a better trade-off be reached between objectivity and reward for non-testable skills? What is Iran’s social contract? These are questions that should interest education planners and economists interested in reforming Iran’s system. They interest me greatly, so I plan to come back to them in this weblog often.