Testing is the most common method of quantifying an individuals’ knowledge and academic progress. At their core, exams are designed to test students on their well of knowledge and how well they can express it on a page.

Not all tests, however, are created equal. We explore how exams vary world-wide, and how different countries test their students’ abilities.


For the past decade, students in Singapore have topped the prestigious Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). It therefore comes as no surprise that Singapore’s education system is among the most highly regarded in the world.

What is the secret to their success? Singapore has deliberately made alterations in its curriculum to emphasise higher-order critical thinking skills beyond that of regurgitating content knowledge. Their famous ‘Maths Mastery’ approach to teaching and other pedagogic approaches to science, engineering and technology has helped ensure their world-wide success.


One of the most notorious exams, the Gaokao, tests high school leavers on their Chinese, mathematics and English, and another science or humanities subject of their choice.

More than nine million high school students sit China’s national university exam every year Click To Tweet

Although the exam is designed for students leaving high school, the Gaokao is more akin to end of year exams taken by university students at top Western universities.

The test has such a large weighting to it that much of China effectively goes into lockdown during it. Factories and building sites are closed down, drivers banned from honking their horns and police on patrol to ensure that students aren’t disturbed.


In Germany, educational legislation and administration of the education system are primarily the responsibility of the federal states (Lands or Länder) with central government playing a small role in governing its 16 states. The extent to which Germany’s exam system is decentralised varies between Federalised Länder across the country, as each State Ministry of Education and Science prepares their own annual assessments. The exception being that of Rhineland-Palatinate, where each school issues its own end-of-year exam.

Unlike neighbouring countries, Germany’s state exams do not primarily focus on testing factual knowledge, but rather the ability to think analytically.

In order to compare varying marks across the country, the States Ministries of Education and Science have agreed a set of common scores, the ‘Uniform Exam Conditions’. This helps ensure equivalence and provides the foundation of a standardised national education.

United Kingdom

Unlike Germany, the UK’s system is governed by central government. Overseen by the Department for Education, the system is somewhat governed by county authorities who are responsible for implementing policy for public education and state-funded schools.

At the age of 16, students typically take exams for the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). While education is compulsory until 18, schooling is only compulsory to 16.

The UK has a global reputation for excellence in higher education, attracting overseas students who make huge economic and cultural contribution to Britain once they have left education, however recent world-wide tests have seen a slip in the rankings as our Asian brethren rise. Experts suggest that this could be due to how Asian cultures highly emphasise the need for a good education to be successful in life, whereas the UK focuses more on external achievement in comparison, e.g. making first stream of school sport teams.

United States

The USA, for the most part, has been described as the ‘alphabet soup’ of standardized tests, including: the NAEP, SBAC, PARCCM, ACT, and, of course, the SAT. However, these tests do not completely determine student’s end-of-school leaving grades, rather a grade point average (GPA) does.

Commercially prepared tests are given in many areas at all levels to assess students’ and schools’ achievements, and locally developed end-of-year examinations are given in many schools. Some states, e.g. New York, have state-wide exams prepared by the state department of education. The federal programme, No Child Left Behind, introduced by the Bush Jr administration in 2002, has also encouraged school districts to implement regular testing of schools in order to prove schools are achieving various goals and thus are eligible for federal funding. Further to that, only about half of U.S. states have anything resembling high-stake exams in comparison to other country systems.

For students looking to go onto further education, many American colleges and universities do consider report cards, teacher recommendations and application essays, to the point where hundreds of U.S. schools no longer require standardised test scores for entry requirements.

Worldwide test takers

Examinations; tests; assessments – it’s hard to imagine school life without them. The ritual of test-taking at its core doesn’t vary much: students sit at a table or computer desk, pencil and/or mouse in hand, the sound of the clock ticking away in the background counting down the seconds. We’ve complied a collection of photos to see how students around the world take exams.

9 pictures from around the world of students sitting #exams Click To Tweet
Pupils prepare at the start of a mathematics exam at the Harris Academy South Norwood, South East London. (Credit Luke/McGregor/Reuters)
Students taking an examination on an open-air playground at a high school in China’s Yichuan, Shaanxi province (credit Reuters)
Students take notes during an Advanced Placement government class at the Academy for College and Career Exploration in Baltimore, Maryland, USA. (Patrick Semnsky / AP)
Pakistani religious students sit on the floor to take their annual exams at the Islamic seminary, Jamia Binoria, in Karachim Pakistan. Binoria is one of the model seminaries and modified its curriculum, adding contemporary subjects like computer, mathematics, and science. (Fareed Khan/AP)
A Students wears a headlight as he takes his end of year examinations due to electrical shortage at a school in Aleppo’s al-Sha’ar district. Photo taken in 2013. (Muzaffar Salaman / Reuters)
An Afghan teacher stands in front of pupils during a year end examination, 2009, in a school with in the mountains of Wardak Province, Afghanistan (Shamil Zhumatov / Reuters)
Students gather at the Cestos High School, Rivercess County, Liberia to take their year-end exams. (David Trotman Wilkins/ Flickr)
Students in the U.S. taking standardised computer tests (credit U.S. Department of Education)