This is Your Brain on Test Scores

There are two seemingly unrelated columns in today’s Opinion page of the New York Times that provide a crisp summary of where we stand in our current thinking about school reform — and where we need to go.

The first is a piece about charter schools in New York City, in which the editors reference “a national study finding that only 17 percent of charter schools offered students a better education, as measured by test scores, and that an astounding 37 percent offered a worse one.”

This is not the first time the Times has uncritically conflated something as comprehensive as “a better education” with something as singular as student reading and math scores. I imagine it won’t be the last. But it is, thankfully, a funhouse-mirror brand of “business thinking” that is on its death bed. Indeed, it hasn’t characterized actual business thinking for decades — ever since Robert Kaplan’s notion of the balanced scorecard first demonstrated the danger of focusing too narrowly on net income as a metric of overall success.

As I have said repeatedly, reading and math scores are valuable — and overvalued. Even KIPP, the poster child for exponential test score growth in high-poverty environments, recognized this when, a year ago, it shared the results of its own study that showed just a 33% college completion rate for its graduates. Since that time, as Paul Tough reports in his new book, KIPP has rightfully sought to round out its own portrait of a successful graduate by identifying a set of actual skills and habits its young people can use to successfully navigate the awaiting worlds of college, career and citizenship.

Ironically, neuroscientist David Eagleman calls for a similarly comprehensive vision on the same Op-Ed page. Writing about President Obama’s recent decision to invest in a multiyear effort to map the human brain, Eagleman makes a series of statements the Times editors would be wise to apply to their own thinking about school reform. “You can’t pull a piece of circuitry out of your smartphone and expect the phone to function,” he writes. “Looking at the brain from a distance isn’t much use, nor is zooming in to a single neuron. A new kind of science is required, one that can track and analyze the activity of billions of neurons simultaneously.”

What excites Eagleman is the potential to understand the brain as a system, and not just as a series of isolated parts. “While we have improved our ability to diagnose problems,” he writes, “we have yet to understand how to remedy them.”

The same can be said for our efforts to diagnose which school provides the “better education.” Now we just need to courage to admit it.

Categories: Assessment, Learning

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