A recent study conducted by MIT, Harvard University and Brown University discovered that students who have scored high on standardized testing did not show the same results in cognitive ability. The neuroscientists in the study tested eighth grade students based on their MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) scores and found that it “did nothing to help students improve in the development of what is called “fluid intelligence” skills, or cognitive gains.” STC school leader Sue Thompson, Executive Director of Academy of the Pacific Rim in Boston, shared her thoughts on the finding:

My initial thoughts about the study, with which our high school principal has agreed, are that we already knew that the MCAS was not assessing higher order thinking skills and the coordinating standards were aligned with this.

Over the past few years, APR has been developing instructional practices in the high school that provide students the scaffolding needed to teach them how to analyze and synthesize information, especially in humanities. Our seminar approach in English has led the way in developing this curricular program. Without this kind of practice, students are not truly ready to access college level work. As a visiting administrator put it the other day, “(The Prep school students) I observed were a bit more polished in their presentation of their thinking, but your students presented more complex thinking in speaking and writing.” Since the prior principal and I were from the independent school world, she as a student and me as a teacher/administrator, we hoped this work would lead to what was observed, not that a bit more polish isn’t in order.

All this is to say, the MIT study was no surprise. The Common Core is claiming to begin to address this deficit through the new correlating curriculum standards and the PARCC testing. We do find the new standards press our teachers to engage students at deeper levels (higher order thinking skills), and it is actually more interesting work to engage in. Strong instruction is key to making any of this happen, and I’m not sure a national assessment will be as effective in instituting this change as is hoped. I think it also means “teaching to the test” is less likely than ever to work.