Standard Testing_TS_121113
December 11, 2013

Standardized Testing Not A Predictor Of Fluid Intelligence

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

A new study from researchers at MIT slated to appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science has shown a distinct disconnect between performances on standardized tests and students’ cognitive abilities.

Standardized tests, a measure of so-called crystallized intelligence, have been shown to be an accurate predictor of students’ future educational achievement, as well as their employment and income prospects as adults. However, recent rising test scores in Massachusetts have not been linked to similar gains in fluid intelligence — or the capacity to analyze abstract problems and think logically, the study researchers found.

“Our original question was this: If you have a school that’s effectively helping kids from lower socioeconomic environments by moving up their scores and improving their chances to go to college, then are those changes accompanied by gains in additional cognitive skills?” asked study author John Gabrieli, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT.

Based on data from nearly 1,400 eighth-graders in the Boston public school system, the study team found that rote learning does not increase critical thinking skills.

“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 and being a good student,” Gabrieli said.

As the standardized test data in the study came from students attending traditional, charter, and exam schools in Boston, researchers first had to consider the particular school that students attended. For the English section of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exam, schools accounted for 24 percent of the variation in scores. Schools also accounted for 34 percent of the math score variation on the test. However, schools only accounted for very little variation in fluid cognitive skills.

Students' fluid intelligence was tested by having them complete cognitive tasks. For one particular task, students had to determine which of six pictures could be used to complete a puzzle. This task demands the processing of information such as shape, pattern recognition, and orientation.

“It’s not always clear what dimensions you have to pay attention to get the problem correct. That’s why we call it fluid, because it’s the application of reasoning skills in novel contexts,” said study author Amy Finn, an MIT postdoctoral researcher.

The study team emphasized that their researcher is not focused on comparing charter schools and public schools. They did note that while school types varied in their impact on test scores, the type of school did not affect students’ fluid cognitive skill levels.

“As we started that study, it struck us that there’s been surprisingly little evaluation of different kinds of cognitive abilities and how they relate to educational outcomes,” Gabrieli said.

The MIT researcher said he hopes the study’s findings will be used to emphasize the need for boosting students’ cognitive skills.

“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,” Gabrieli said.

Previous research has shown that educational programs focused on improving memory, attention, executive function, and inductive reasoning can improve fluid intelligence.