Monday, January 06, 2014

MIT Study Finds That Standardized Tests Do Not Make Kids Smarter

I tend to think that the ongoing push by policy makers for more standardized testing in our schools is because it's easy. The tests are easy to create, easy to grade, and the results easy to quantify on easy to understand bar graphs and pie charts. It's easy for our elected leaders, who are feeling the pressure of decades of corporate backed PR designed to create the impression that our public schools are failing, to just purchase a pre-packaged solution from one of these very same corporations in the form of tests that measure certain aspects of math and literacy knowledge. In the end, these tests produce raw numbers, scores, that can be used to "prove" that we've successfully turned the corner.

At the risk of losing funding and jobs, then, our schools have figured out how to coach the kids up so that they attain higher year over year scores, giving politicians some nice, tidy, easy-to-understand data to sell to their constituents in the next election. Sadly, after all these millions of dollars, and all these millions of hours spent with our children hunched over desks and staring into computer screens drilling and memorizing, there is no evidence that children are learning anything other than to perform well on standardized math and literacy tests.

A recent study by MIT neuroscientists, in fact, found that even while some "high performing" schools have shown improved standardized test result scores, they have failed to budge the needle when it comes to abstract reasoning skills.

In a study of nearly 1,400 eighth-graders in the Boston public school system, the researchers found that some schools have successfully raised their students' scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). However, those schools had almost no effect on students' performance on tests of fluid intelligence skills, such as working memory capacity, speed of information processing, and ability to solve abstract problems . . . "Our original question was this: If you have a school that's effectively helping kids from lower socioeconomic environments by moving up their test scores and improving their chances to go to college, then are those changes accompanied by gains in additional cognitive skills?" says John Gabrieli, the Grover M. Mermann Professor of Health Sciences and Technology, professor of brain and cognitive sciences, and senior author of a forthcoming Psychological Science paper describing the findings . . . Instead researchers found that educational practices designed to raise knowledge and boost test scores do not improve fluid intelligence. "It doesn't seem like you get these skills for free in the way that you might hope, just by doing a lot of studying."

This is something teachers already know. It's something our policy makers should already know as well, yet the drumbeat continues as we put more and more of our eggs in the high stakes testing basket, making our schools increasingly all about a narrow range of what scientists call "crystalized knowledge."

However, schools whose students have the highest gains on test scores do not produce similar gains in "fluid intelligence" -- the ability to analyze abstract problems and think logically.

Somehow, I don't think that standardized testing for fluid intelligence is anywhere in our future. It is notoriously hard to measure and there is a great deal of debate about if one can even "teach" it in the commonly understood meaning of that word, let alone test it. Indeed, many of us who work with young children every day are convinced that these skills cannot be taught in the conventional sense, but rather must be learned through hands-on experience with the real world.

No, these tests are taking over our schools, not because they're making our children smarter, but rather because they're easy and profitable. They've spent billions of dollars convincing us that we are in crisis and are now attempting to march us into a future for our children that will look a lot like China in which school children are burnt out and depressed.

Consider how the Chinese have managed to achieve their high test scores, essentially turning their schools over to full time training for these tests. It's also interesting to note that while our elected officials have rushed in to tout the results of these tests, the Chinese government, notorious for blowing its own horn at the slightest provocation, has remained suspiciously silent.

Michigan State University professor Yong Zhao has been keeping a close eye on China's official response by monitoring it's main state-controlled media portal, finding nothing applauding the results, but instead this from parents and students:

"Since my daughter began 7th grade . . . she has had extra evening classes. At that time, the class ends at 18:50 and I accepted it. But ever since she entered 9th grade, the evening class has lengthened to 20:40. For the graduating class, the students have to take classes from 7:30 to 20:00 on Saturdays. There are also five weeks of classes during the winter and summer school vacation. All day long, the students don't have any self-study time, or physical education classes . . .

"This kind of practice has seriously damaged students' health. They have completely lost motivation and interest in studying. My child's health gets worse day by day . . .

"This is not the end. After coming home after 10 p.m., she has to spend at least one hour on her homework. She has to get up at 5 a.m. She is still a child. May I ask how many adults can endure this kind of work?"

And from a student:

"I am exhausted and have become stupid, even before I graduate from middle school," says one student. "You adults work from 9 to 5, but we have to work 18 hours a day." 

Zhao concludes:

That's the secret: when you spend all your time preparing for tests, and when students are selected based on their test-taking abilities, you get outstanding test scores.

Is this the future this gung-ho cabal of "reformers" envision? If so, it's not what the American people want.

From Monty Neill writing in The Washington Post:

Surveys have found that parents, communities, even legislators want far more from their schools than only academics -- never mind academics reduced to test prep. Their goals for schools include basic skills, critical thinking, arts and literature, preparation for skilled work, social skills, citizenship, and physical and emotional health.

Yet despite our overall satisfaction with our public schools and our desire for a genuine, well-rounded education for our children, we find our top education officials calling for the opposite. And not just calling for it, but pulling the fire alarm, inventing a crisis where none exists.

Yes, we do have schools that are failing and for the children in these schools it is a real crisis. It's not an accident that these failing schools also serve impoverished communities. Schools in affluent or middle class neighborhoods are not failing -- those are the ones receiving high marks from parents. The problem here is poverty, not education. And that, I fear, is the real reason they've settled on standardized tests: solving the problems of poverty is way too hard.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Do you think it's actually possible to increase a child's "fluid intelligence" during middle childhood, or is that an innate trait that remains fixed while the expression of it is (or isn't) refined? Aside from addressing poverty -- as I do imagine that malnutrition, attachment insecurity, unaddressed illness, etc. during early childhood can have long-term impacts on cognitive processing -- do you have any other examples of research-demonstrated teaching methods that have been shown to enhance intelligence?