The MIT researchers avoid loaded terms like intelligence, so let me be the blunt one and sum up a provocative new Boston-based study coming out soon in the leading psychology journal Psychological Science:
If you’re a kid who’s lucky enough to go to a school that boosts your performance on standardized tests like the MCAS, you’re scoring higher because you know more, but probably not because you’ve gotten smarter. And by smarter, I mean better at certain measurable cognitive skills that psychologists call “fluid intelligence” or “fluid reasoning” — like working memory and problem-solving in a novel situation.
MIT sums up the findings:
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.
The researchers calculated how much of the variation in MCAS scores was due to the school that students attended. For MCAS scores in English, schools accounted for 24 percent of the variation, and they accounted for 34 percent of the math MCAS variation. However, the schools accounted for very little of the variation in fluid cognitive skills — less than 3 percent for all three skills combined.
Even stronger evidence came from a comparison of about 200 students who had entered a lottery for admittance to a handful of Boston’s oversubscribed charter schools, many of which achieve strong improvement in MCAS scores. The researchers found that students who were randomly selected to attend high-performing charter schools did significantly better on the math MCAS than those who were not chosen, but there was no corresponding increase in fluid intelligence scores.
It will be interesting to see how this study resonates in the eternally contentious discussion about standardized tests and the fraught practice of “teaching to the test.” To get a clearer sense of what the study says about testing — and what it doesn’t — I spoke with the paper’s senior author, MIT neuroscience professor John Gabrieli, of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research. Our conversation, lightly edited:
Let’s begin with the ending: How would you sum up what this study found?
Our core findings were that which school a student attended did influence his or her test scores on statewide tests, but it did not appear to influence their fluid cognitive abilities; abilities such as how quickly you process novel information, how much information you can juggle in your mind, what people call ‘working memory,’ and how much you can apply novel, fluid reasoning to novel problems.
And what were the skills that it did affect?
They affected what psychologists call ‘crystallized knowledge,’ knowledge of vocabulary and language, knowledge of arithmetic and calculation, the kinds of things that we teach in schools and we want students to know.
So in lay language, what school you attend could affect how much you know, but not how smart you are? Continue reading