In the modern world of education, standardized tests have become the most prevalent method used to gauge a student’s abilities. However, a new study by researchers from three major universities indicates that these tests don’t do a very good job of measuring critical thinking skills and other deeper cognitive intelligence.

The study, which was conducted by neuroscientists from MIT, Harvard, and Brown University, calls into question the effectiveness of America’s reliance on standardized testing. The most alarming finding was that students who showed some of the biggest improvements on standardized tests showed much less significant gains in terms of the ability to analyze material, think logically, and solve problems–the hallmarks of critical thinking.

Study methods and results

The research was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. In the study, the neuroscientists tested strategies that schools in the Boston area used to help boost scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exams, the state’s primary standardized set of tests.

What they found was that, while many of the 1,400 students that they studied did experience a rise in their MCAS scores, there was no correlation to how well they scored when their “fluid thinking” skills were measured.

“It’s not always clear what dimensions you have to pay attention to get the problem correct. That’s why we call it fluid, because it’s the application of reasoning skills in novel contexts,” Amy Finn, an MIT postdoc and lead author of the paper, said in a statement.

Those fluid thinking skills, which are very similar if not identical to critical thinking skills, are what employers and universities are looking for in the 21st century. So promoting their advancement in schools throughout America is essential to the workforce of today and tomorrow. That is also why the study’s findings that the current system of testing doesn’t do a very good job of measuring those skills can be seen as a major blow to the increasing omnipresence of standardized tests.

Measuring accountability and critical thinking

Much of the school reform movement of the past decade has been built around the idea of accountability–making sure that the performance of administrators, educators, and students is properly and accurately measured, and that those results lead to meaningful changes and more positive student outcomes.

However, if the tests that are being used to enforce accountability aren’t effectively measuring the skills and outcomes they are designed to, then the whole system can be called into question.

Just as importantly, many people, from administrators to educators to parents, have questioned how the growing number of standardized tests gets in the way of teaching students important deeper thinking skills. Since educators and students are required to focus on rote memorization of facts and information, there isn’t always much room left over to focus on teaching critical thinking.

Moving forward

To counteract those concerns, critical thinking was a central theme of the Common Core State Standards, and most Common Core lesson plans incorporate those skills. However, it is increasingly incumbent upon educators to find a way to balance the demands of teaching the skills and knowledge measured on standardized tests with the deeper thinking that is necessary to prepare their students for life after school.

Fortunately, there are many creative instructional strategies that help promote critical thinking in students. One educational resource that features such strategies is Motivation ReadingTM from Mentoring Minds. It is designed to complement the Common Core State Standards by engaging students in meticulous and important learning exercises that build stronger reading, comprehension, and critical thinking skills