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)

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