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



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

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

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This post originally appeared at Scientific American.

Tags: education, iq, learning, performance, psychology, scott barry kaufman, standardized achievement test performance, standardized testing

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