Standardized Test Score Gains Do Not Indicate Improved Cognitive Skills, Study Says

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Source: “NYC to Create New Standardized Tests,”, June 1, 2011

A team of neuroscientists has found that students whose standardized test scores improved showed no similar gains in cognitive abilities. The researchers concluded that teaching practices intended to boost student test scores have no effect on students’ ability to think logically or solve abstract problems.

The peer-reviewed study, released on Dec. 12, 2013 and to be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, analyzed scores from 1,367 eighth-graders on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). The scores were compared with the students’ “fluid intelligence” skills. Tests of fluid intelligence measure the ability to think logically and to solve abstract problems. Standardized tests such as the MCAS measure “crystallized intelligence”: the ability to access knowledge and skills stored in long-term memory.

The study’s lead author, MIT neuroscience professor John Gabrieli, told WBUR Boston that “even schools that do an impressive job in enhancing their students’ scores on standardized tests, on crystallized abilities, don’t seem to move those abilities in regards to cognitive fluid skills.” The study was undertaken by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard University, and Brown University, and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

One of the fluid intelligence tests asked students to identify the missing piece from a puzzle. According to an MIT report on the study, this test required “integration of information such as shape, pattern, and orientation,” skills that are not necessarily assessed on standardized tests. Gabrieli stated that “It doesn’t seem like you get these skills for free in the way that you might hope, just by doing a lot of studying and being a good student.”

Gabrieli insisted, however, that his findings do not demonstrate that standardized tests are deficient. “It does not show that there’s any problem with standardized testing; we think there are lots of issues on the strengths and limitations of such testing, but our results don’t speak to that.”

Standardized testing has become more prevalent since the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) mandated testing in all 50 US states. Critics of testing worry that the emphasis on rote learning has come at the expense of abstract cognitive skills such as critical thinking. California Governor Jerry Brown criticized the rise in testing on Dec. 16, 2013, stating that “We’ve had 10, 12 years of standardized testing and in the latest international tests America hasn’t gone up very much if at all… There are important educational encounters that can’t be captured in tests that are managed from headquarters by [US Education Secretary] Arne Duncan or someone in Sacramento.”

In response, a spokesman from the US Department of Education defended standardized testing, stating that “Tests provide data that allow school systems to make important decisions based on how much students are learning. And history shows that when we don’t do that, it’s the performance of the most vulnerable students that gets swept under the rug.”


“As State Awaits Federal Decision, Gov. Brown Criticizes Standardized Tests,”, Dec. 17, 2013

Allie Bidwell, “Study: High Standardized Test Scores Don’t Translate to Better Cognition,”, Dec. 13, 2013

Carey Goldberg, “Boston Study: What Higher Standardized Test Scores Don’t Mean,”, Dec. 11, 2013

Valerie Strauss, “Study: Test-Score Gains Don’t Mean Cognitive Gains,”, Dec. 16, 2013

Anne Trafton, “Even When Test Scores Go Up, Some Cognitive Abilities Don’t,”, Dec. 11, 2013