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Standardized Achievement Tests: What Are They Good For? Hint: Not Cognitive Ability.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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It’s well known that good standardized test takers also tend to have high cognitive ability. That’s not a shocker.

But until recently, very little research has looked at the effect of improving standardized achievement test performance. This is obviously a really important question, since we are so steeped in a standardized testing culture. Wouldn’t it be nice to know what all this obsessive teaching to the test is really good for?

A new study makes it clear what growth in standardized test performance doesn’t buy us: cognitive ability.

Amy Finn, John Gabrieli, and colleagues at MIT, Brown, and Harvard looked at standardized test scores (Math and English language arts) and cognitive ability (working memory, processing speed, and abstract reasoning) among nearly 1,400 8th graders attending traditional, exam, and charter public schools in Boston.

Here are the highlights:

  • There was a substantial correlation between standardized test scores and cognitive ability. In other words, good test takers already tend to have high levels of working memory, processing speed, and abstract reasoning skills.
  • Cognitive ability was associated with growth in achievement test scores from 4th to 8th grade.
  • The school a student attended, and the quality of education they received, played little role in the growth of cognitive ability. This is consistent with prior research suggesting that cognitive ability predicts academic achievement, but academic achievement does not predict cognitive ability.
  • The school a student attended, and the quality of education they received, did play a role in the growth of standardized achievement test scores.
  • Students attending a charter school as a result of winning the admissions lottery had higher standardized test scores compared to students who lost the lottery.
  • There was no difference between the lottery groups, however, on measures of cognitive ability.

Why does this matter? Well, there are various ways of looking at this.

If standardized testing is your thing, you’ll be comforted to know that the results are promising that achievement test scores can be improved, and quality of instruction does have an impact on test scores.

If cognitive ability is more your thing, you might be a bit disappointed to see that schools aren’t doing a good job boosting particular cognitive skills. That might be troublesome, considering the importance of fluid reasoning and executive functioning (such as working memory and cognitive inhibition) for a wide range of important life outcomes, including school performance, drug use, crime, and achieving virtually any goal you have in life. As the researchers point out, there are examples of targeted programs that increase cognitive control and reasoning. It just looks like teaching to the standardized tests isn’t going cut it.

But me? I’m not convinced any of that should be the top priority of education. What about deep, meaningful learning that students will remember the rest of their lives? That connects the material to their own personal lives, and the lives of others? What about helping students learn about themselves, and their identity? Or helping them find their unique passions and inclinations, and cultivating that through engagement in personally meaningful projects?

Don’t get me wrong: I recognize the importance of assessing content knowledge and the importance of abstract reasoning and holding lots of information in your mind at one time. I do think the question “Does growth in standardized achievement test scores buy you higher cognitive ability?” is an important one.

But I think an equally important question is: “Should we even be standardizing minds in the first place?”

You can read the paper here. Here is the supplement.

© 2013 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

image credit: confessionsofahighbrow.com

Scott Barry Kaufman About the Author: Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute and a researcher in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, where he investigates the measurement and development of imagination. His latest book is Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined. Follow on Twitter @sbkaufman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Archimedes 6:38 pm 12/20/2013

    The following is the URL of the Wikipedia web site that describes and delineates the Scholastic Achievement Test:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scholastic_Achievement_Test

    The same categorically states that Scholastic Achievement Test Scores are highly correlated with general intelligence and reasoning ability.

    Link to this
  2. 2. m 11:04 pm 12/20/2013

    The tests are simply a waste of time for most students.

    If the real reason is to keep childrens minds busy and out of work, then they should arrange school so pupils are tested EVERY day, and that they must sit each night and study for the tests and thereby improve.

    Perhaps renaming schools to childcare will be a sufficient incentive for people to realise the truth.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Inner Peace 12:22 pm 12/24/2013

    The goal of standardized achievement testing is not to measure cognitive ability; it is to measure what kids have learned. Cognitive ability is inherent and may or may not be amenable to increase through formal education. But our task in educating children (and adults!) is to find ways to reach the great variety of minds and abilities that come into our various education programs, and help them to master the facts and tasks that will help them to succeed.

    Some students need more help than others with math, or writing, or reading. All of these students also have particular strengths. Can we develop systems that are flexible, creative and effective in reaching all our students, equipping them for productive lives? And what metrics can we develop to tell us whether we are succeeding as we try?

    Link to this
  4. 4. hkraznodar 2:43 pm 12/24/2013

    Although Wikipedia has a much higher track record for accuracy than encyclopedias, school textbooks and pretty much any other information source, it isn’t perfect. It also doesn’t get updated until someone takes the time to do so.

    @m – Your point is unclear. Standardized tests exist to “assembly line” good citizenry among young humans. In this manner they perform admirably. If you want a highly intelligent, well educated populous capable of logical thought then perhaps standardized tests fail.

    Link to this
  5. 5. kljones1 8:47 pm 02/12/2014

    Personally, I do not usually enjoy taking standardized tests. This article does completely cover that they are a necessity to determine what exactly students have learned in a classroom. The article really hit home with me because it helped me see that there isn’t anything to be afraid of when it comes to standardized test taking especially if I have been taught well. I feel that the article correlates between cognitive ability and standardized test taking in the most accurate way possible and has several good sources. Cognitive ability and the actual knowledge upon a topic are both very important traits. The article also makes a good point with the fact that cognitive ability isn’t usually affected by the school that you attend or by the teacher that is teaching, but the knowledge that you receive/learn does depend on the school you attend and the teacher that is teaching you.

    The comment above that says students should be tested on the daily instead of having to take standards tests is a very great idea as well. It may only teach students memorization though. Students should have to learn a topic instead of just memorizing it. Standardized tests ensure learning instead of memorizing.

    I think all students, parents and teachers should be given the opportunity to read this post. It is very informative and helpful. I really enjoyed it.

    Link to this
  6. 6. CCSSIMath 10:53 am 02/21/2014

    >schools aren’t doing a good job boosting particular cognitive skills

    Just to be clear, this study only looked at American (specifically, Boston area) schools.

    One thing all these schools have in common is they present mathematics in pretty much the same way it’s has been “taught” across the US for decades.

    In some nations, PK-12 mathematics is presented quite differently. Determining whether some of those approaches affect cognitive ability could be a more enlightening study.

    Link to this

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