Assessing What Matters in School: Intelligence and Beyond

The latest Educational Leadership has a good piece on how to create better types of assessments / tests to fully measure the capabilities of a student. The author, Robert Sternberg, is president of the American Psychological Association, one of the most prestigious posts in the field, and he starts the article relaying an anecdote about how both he and the preceding president received a C in their intro psych college course. This irony serves as the jumping off point for a rebuke of the traditional multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank assessments in schools and on the SAT which "assess primarily remembered knowledge and analytical skills applied to this knowledge."

When I look at the skills and concepts I have needed to succeed in my own field, I find a number that are crucial: creativity, common sense, wisdom, ethics, dedication, honesty, teamwork, hard work, knowing how to win and how to lose, a sense of fair play, and lifelong learning. But memorizing books is certainly not one of them.

But how do you test someone’s creativity or wisdom or practical abilities? Sternberg has designed a test which assess these things and others. Here are two examples of his "Success Intelligence Model" questions:

In science, we might ask (1) What is the evidence suggesting that global warming is taking place (analytical)? (2) What do you think the world will be like in 200 years if global warming continues at its present rate (creative)? (3) What can you, personally, do to help slow down global warming (practical)? and (4) What responsibility do we have, if any, to future generations to act on global warming now before it gets much worse (wisdom)?

In mathematics, we might ask (1) What is the interest after six months on a loan of $4,000 at 4 percent annually (analytical)? (2) Create a mathematical problem involving interest on a loan (creative); (3) How would you invest $4,000 to maximize your rate of return without risking more than 10 percent of the principal (practical)? and (4) Why do states set maximum rates of interest that lenders can charge, and should they do so (wisdom)?

This seems good for school use, but how to scale it to the level of a nationwide test like SAT? Don’t know. Sternberg has good reasons for working on this stuff. First, he thinks a more holistic test is fairer. Multiple choice tests are biased in favor of those cognitively suited to the task — if you’re good at one multiple choice test, you’ll be good at another, regardless of content. So it primarily tests your multiple-choice-taking skill, instead of the content of the multiple-choice test. Second, he says it is a far better predicator of freshman year college grades. Third, today’s times call for a range of intelligences, not just raw analytical or memorization ability, so it’s probably a better life success predicator, too.

By the way, school assessments failing to be a reliable predictor of career / life success isn’t just limited to psychology. Law bar exams are notoriously disconnected from reality. One famous example is when the former dean of Stanford Law School, Kathleen Sullivan, who’s argued cases in front of the Supreme Court, failed the California Bar Exam a year or two ago.

(hat tip: Eide Neurolearning)

5 comments on “Assessing What Matters in School: Intelligence and Beyond
  • I agree with Sternberg’s rebuke of the traditional assessments in schools and on the SAT.

    I would qualify that by saying that you certainly can test someone’s practical abilities, but I don’t believe you can really ‘test’ someone’s creativity or wisdom in a quantifiable way.

    Thinking you can is carrying Jamesian pragmatism or Skinnerian behaviorism one step too far.

  • Would you agree that the primary reason you’re so interested in finding articles and theories that show how SAT tests and other multiple choice exams are not a good judge of wisdom, is because you yourself are not good at them? If you were an expert at those tests, and aced your SAT, would you still seek out all these articles? My guess is no.

    Just trying to keep you nuetral, because it’s become quite clear that you’re very anti “grades” and “tests” as a judge of skill and wisdom, but you provide little or no comments on how perhaps those methods of assesment are in fact the preferred method of choice.

  • I did indeed say why they are the preferred method of choice: they are the most efficient, they scale, they are easy to grade. I support these new types of assessment but acknowledged in the post that they don’t scale from an efficiency perspective. The SAT is used first and foremost because it is efficient to administer and grade.

    You are incorrect that “I am not good at them.” In fact, compared to most people, I am quite good. If the power structures in society were organized solely based on a standardized test, I would benefit.

    But my motivations are secondary. Do you actually believe standardized tests assess people’s abilities in a fair and comprehensive way?

    A lot of people get unfairly screwed by the measurements being used nowadays. I’m not one of them – but I still give a shit.

  • True story: When I was in kindergarten, I had to take a reading readiness test. To put it mildly, the questions on this test were poorly worded.

    So, I put up my little hand and questioned how they were worded. My mother recalls my doing this more than once, and the teacher got so annoyed that she flunked me.

    My mother was quite shocked that I would do so poorly on such a test. Something just didn’t seem right to her. So, she went over to the school and demanded to see a copy of the test. She also demanded that the teacher tell her how the test was given.

    Mom concluded that the test was flawed, and, despite the kindergarten teacher’s recommendation that I be held back another year, she enrolled me in first grade.

    And guess who was the first one to read in that class?

    BTW, I’m still an avid reader.

  • I mentor slum kids for an NGO, where using informal education we strive to instill some nuggets of wisdom to the fresh minds (middle-age group). Among many things what we are (and will be) trying is not regular tutoring, but instead several role plays (in groups) on several themes, something like:

    –That they have to explain to a just-arrived Alien – on how to use an ATM…when Aliens won’t even know what “Money” is. Enacted with one of the mentee being the ‘Alien’.

    –That the God has just given them a wish – The ability to figure out what anyone is thinking at any point of time…How will they use this power to become the richest person in the world… Legally or Illegally :)…The least unethical the plan the best.

    –That the government has passed the law to abolish all written
    examinations in all the schools and colleges…And then as teachers they have to figure out which student in their 9th class is best in the Maths subject (Like they can do some practicals)

    –That their country has become the global economic superpower and people all around the world carve to get a job here…A bunch of Americans have been employed in a remote town there, and the group has to teach these NRA’s (Non-Resident-Americans) basic native language-speaking in NRA’s language…i.e English (Essentially talking native lang. in English).

    –That tommorow is the last day of earth and of human beings here and so plan out all the things they would wish to do in last 24 hours…The places they want to visit…the people they want to meet and…whatever.

    –That one bright morning they wake up and find themselves in the year 2079. Obviously amazed by the technological development around, they need to describe to us what all changes have taken place in normal daily life…both the good and the bad.

    –That Time Machines has come to reality and their group is given ONE chance to hitchike back in time and change one historical event…What would it be and why…and the impacts it would have…(based on whatever histroy kids hae read)

    While these ideas make an interesting fun recepie for the kids, at the same time it does value addition to them in terms on public speaking skills, world-view etc…
    Teaching has to change.


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