Testing our way to the top

In his book, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goldman relates an ongoing study tracking valedictorians and salutatorians from the class of 1981. The study relates that by their late twenties, these high-achievers had “. . . climbed to only average levels of success. Ten years after graduating from high school, only one in four were at the highest level of young people of comparable age in their chosen profession.”

In a similar study of Harvard students from classes of the 1940’s and followed into middle age, those with the highest test scores were not notably more successful than their lower scoring peers. “Nor did they have the greatest life satisfaction, nor the most happiness with friendships, family, or romantic relationships,” says Goldman.

“I think we’ve discovered the ‘dutiful’—people who know how to achieve in the system,” says Karen Arnold, one of the scientists tracking the valedictorians cited by Goldman. “But valedictorians struggle as surely as we all do. To know that a person is a valedictorian is to know only that he or she is exceedingly good at achievement as measured by grades. It tells you nothing about how they react to the vicissitudes of life.”

In their book, The Bell Curve, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray analyze the chances of the more average student for success.

“Perhaps a freshman with an SAT math score of 500 had better not have his heart set on being a mathematician, but if instead he wants to run his own business, become a U.S. Senator or make a million dollars, he should not put aside his dreams. The link between test scores and those achievements is dwarfed by the totality of other characteristics that he brings to life.”

Interestingly, this seems to hold true not only for individuals, but for nations as well. History paints an interesting picture of the value of test results in an intriguing set of data from the First International Mathematics Study–a measure of 13-year olds in 11 countries conducted in 1964 (in which the United States finished second to last). According to Keith Baker, a retired authority with the U.S. Department of Education, performance on this test was found, 40 years later, to have a negative correlation with a nation’s economic growth, productivity, and creativity.

“In short,” says Baker, “the higher a nation’s test score 40 years ago, the worse its economic performance.”

So if high-stakes tests can’t be counted on to indicate future success, what can? Responding to just that question in an interview in The School Administrator, Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat, shared an equation he thought was a better indicator: CQ+PO>IQ. According to Friedman, Curiosity Quotient plus Passion Quotient is greater than Intelligence Quotient.

He goes on to say that the flat world of the 21st century requires a “mash-up” or combination of traditional left-brain (rule-based, linear, SAT-style) and right brain (artistic, empathetic, narrative, synthesizing) thinking. “It’s not that I don’t think math and science are important,” he says. “They still are. But more than ever our secret sauce comes from our ability to integrate art, science, music and literature with the hard sciences. That’s what produces an iPod revolution or a Google.”

In the same interview, Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind, says, “Amen. You show me a curious, intrinsically motivated kid—and I’ll show you someone who’ll leave the kid who merely complies with the rules and studies for the SAT in the dust.”

Interestingly, the direction of education today is to place more emphasis on the results of high-stakes tests. Indeed in keeping with many other states, Wisconsin teacher evaluations will now, in large part, be based on how well students score on these exams. With districts spending more and more time and money administering them and their performance evaluations based on them, Wisconsin teachers would be foolish not to spend significant amounts of class time teaching kids how to test well.

With increased scrutiny and attention, there is little doubt that our students will become better test takers. Whether this will result in a more creative and innovative population of learners remains to be seen.

Founder of WeTeachWeLearn.org, Chris Wondra is just another Wisconsin public school teacher. Email Chris at: mrwondra@weteachwelearn.org.

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