Dec 2, 2014 by Norene Wiesen
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test scores and cognitive skillsThe amount of attention schools devote to improving standardized test scores is controversial. Mandated or not, there is disagreement about what is actually being measured, and how much what is being measured matters. Now, a study by John Gabrieli at MIT, published in the journal Psychological Science, is shedding some light on what’s not being measured. The results are food for thought.

Gabrieli and his team set out to discover whether increased test scores were associated with improved fluid intelligence, which can be measured in terms of cognitive skills such as working memory, processing rate, and the ability to reason abstractly. Standardized tests, on the other hand, measure crystallized intelligence, students’ ability to apply the knowledge and skills they have been taught.

The researchers approached the question by comparing results from schools with test score increases on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) to schools without increases. In comparing 1,400 students, they found that fluid intelligence showed no correspondence with the school attended. Put another way, students’ fluid intelligence did not increase along with test scores.

Increased test scores are a measure of success, to be sure. Students from the schools with higher test scores were more apt to graduate and go to college. But what then? Do these students complete college in higher numbers than their peers with similar cognitive abilities and lower test scores? Do they have what it takes to perform well at work and to navigate the increasing complexity of our world? We don’t have answers yet, but researchers are turning their attention to these questions to find out.

In the meantime, critics of standardized testing question whether abilities and qualities not measured by these tests – such as solving novel problems, a cognitive skill  – are likely to be as, or more, important in the long run. Some researchers, including Gabrieli, would like to see mainstream educators jump on the fluid intelligence bandwagon. “Schools can improve crystallized abilities, and now it might be a priority to see if there are some methods for enhancing the fluid ones as well,” he says.

A growing number of schools have already begun to focus on building students’ cognitive skills with the Fast ForWord online intervention program. Fast ForWord is scientifically proven to develop cognitive skills like working memory, attention, and processing rate as well as reading and language skills. Students who use Fast ForWord typically boost their academic performance significantly and also become more confident learners.

As important as it is to build crystallized intelligence, developing both kinds of intelligence should be a priority for educators. When students are equipped not only to apply knowledge and skills to familiar problems, but also to understand and reason about novel situations, that’s a real-world advantage with lasting value. What better way to equip students for independent lives and adult responsibilities?

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