Schools raise scores, but not smarts

Schools can improve students’ achievement test scores, but not their cognitive ability, writes Scott Barry Kaufman in Scientific American. Reseachers analyzed math and English scores and cognitive ability (working memory, processing speed, and abstract reasoning) among nearly 1,400 eighth graders attending traditional, exam and charter public schools in Boston.

“Good test takers tend to have high levels of working memory, processing speed, and abstract reasoning skills,” Kaufman writes.

Cognitive ability was associated with growth in achievement test scores from 4th to 8th grade. This is consistent with prior research suggesting that cognitive ability predicts academic achievement, but academic achievement does not predict cognitive ability.

Students in some schools showed growth in achievement scores but school quality “played little role in the growth of cognitive ability.”

Students attending a charter school as a result of winning the admissions lottery had higher standardized test scores compared to students who lost the lottery.

There was no difference between the lottery groups, however, on measures of cognitive ability.

Cognitive skills such as fluid reasoning and executive functioning (working memory and cognitive inhibition) affect many life outcomes, from school performance to drug use, Kaufman writes. The researchers cite “examples of targeted programs that increase cognitive control and reasoning.”

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