Can Schools Boost Brain Skills for Reading, Not Just Raise Test Scores?

Thanks once again to the edublog linking queen Joanne Jacobs, a December Scientific American column by psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman caught my attention. And it should yours, too.

The author unpacks a study of Boston students that found while some schools improved performance on standardized academic assessments, they didn’t really improve measures of cognitive ability. In other words, better schools boost scores on math and reading tests, but those students’ brain skills still are functioning about the same.

Kaufman begins the column by citing some of his own recent research that unsurprisingly shows “good standardized test takers also tend to have high cognitive ability.” I am curious to see more about how the two results mesh. As more schools increase test scores without registering an effect on brain skills, does the identified relationship or tendency fade?

But in the end, the psychologist makes the point that he isn’t as concerned about either standardized assessment results or cognitive abilities as much as having the education system focused on instilling creativity and “deep, meaningful learning that students will remember the rest of their lives.” (Though admittedly, these things are harder to measure, and accountability matters — which is why Douglas County is looking to expand frontiers through a Balanced Assessment System.)

Kaufman well may have a good point, one with which many parents would be justified in agreeing. However, to get on board with the maximum potential for a creative learning journey, students need to be equipped with proficient reading abilities. For some students who struggle to get there, that means diagnosing weaknesses and providing strategies to improve what…? Brain skills.

All that’s old is new again. It took me back four years almost exactly to the day, when I asked: “The future is here, what about brain skills testing?” The focus was on a nonprofit group known as Cognitive First. Founder Larry Hargrave later returned in 2012 for a podcast interview with one of my Education Policy Center friends.

The group makes the case that their methods could help beef up reading proficiency rates above 94 percent. As 2014 dawns, Cognitive First still is actively working in schools across many states, including Colorado. How well documented, tested, and peer reviewed are their results? And how can any success they’re achieving be scaled up?

I don’t know. But their work and a thought-provoking Scientific American column ought to remind us that achievement test scores are just the beginning of the prescription, not the be-all and end-all of education results. So much to learn, so little time.