02/01/2012 03:14 pm ET | Updated Apr 02, 2012

The Test Score Hypothesis

The entire school reform movement is predicated on a hypothesis: boosting student achievement, as measured by standardized tests, will enable greater prosperity, both for individuals and for the country as a whole. More specifically, improving students' reading, math, and science knowledge and skills will help poor children climb out of poverty, and will help all children prepare for the rigors of college and the workplace. And by building the "human capital" of the American workforce, rising achievement will spur economic growth which will lift all boats.

Call this the Test Score Hypothesis.

It explains reformers' enthusiasm for test-based accountability; for "college and career-ready standards"; for teacher evaluations based, in significant part, on student outcomes; for "data-based instruction"; and for much of the rest of the modern-day reform agenda. After all, if reading, math, and science knowledge and skills are so directly linked to the life chances of individual kids, and of the livelihood of the country as a whole, why not get the education system focused like a laser on them?

But is this hypothesis correct? Is stronger academic performance related to better life outcomes for kids and better economic outcomes for nations?

In a word: yes. As Kevin Carey noted recently, the big Chetty et al study didn't just demonstrate the importance of teacher effectiveness. It also offered strong support for the Test Score Hypothesis:

"If you believe standardized tests are worthless or highly flawed or deeply inadequate or even troublingly limited in accuracy and scope-and many reasonable people believe these things-then you could dismiss or downplay value-added measures of teacher effectiveness, by definition... But now the CFR study says that teachers who are unusually good at helping students score high on standardized tests today aren't just unusually good at helping students score high on standardized tests tomorrow. They also have an unusual effect on the likelihood of students going to college, going to a good college, earning a good living, living in a nice place, and saving for retirement. In other words, whatever the limitations of standardized tests may be, test-based value-added scores do, in fact, provide valuable information about the things most people care most about."

Then there's the international evidence. As Eric Hanushek has been arguing vociferously for years, there's a direct link between academic achievement (as measured by math and science tests) and a country's economic growth:

"The level of cognitive skills of a nation's students has a large effect on its subsequent economic growth rate. Increasing the average number of years of schooling attained by the labor force boosts the economy only when increased levels of school attainment also boost cognitive skills. In other words, it is not enough simply to spend more time in school; something has to be learned there."

Hanushek further argues that the only way to solve our country's long term fiscal challenge is to grow our way out of it. If we could indeed boost the cognitive skills of our students, even by a little, our structural deficit would go away.

So student achievement matters a lot. But does it matter the most?

It's hard to make the case anymore that test scores are irrelevant. But what remains unknown is whether reading, math, and science are the most important things that schools could be teaching. As Dana Goldstein noted back in December:

"I've been struck again and again by the newness of the idea that schooling is primarily a matter of academic achievement... It is only really since A Nation at Risk that we've had a national dialogue about academic excellence for every child. This is a much-needed development in American culture, but its discontents are numerous: A lack of attention paid to the civic, social, and artistic benefits of schooling, and the ways in which children are (ideally) shaped as moral, cultured, socially-responsible people by their teachers and school communities."

We might all want schools to walk and chew gum at the same time -- to boost "academic achievement" while also developing "moral, cultured, socially-responsible people." But our policies -- especially school-level accountability and test-based teacher evaluations--focus on academic achievement alone.

The nagging question then -- the "known unknown" -- is whether other stuff matters more -- both to kids' life chances and to the country's economic success. What if, for instance, "social and emotional intelligence" -- knowing how to relate to others -- is more important than many reformers have been willing to acknowledge? What if these interpersonal skills are what help lift poor kids out of poverty and enable economies to succeed? Or other "soft skills" and attributes like grit, perseverance, industriousness, the ability to delay gratification, and so forth?

In that case, is it smart to push Head Start centers to focus overwhelmingly on pre-literacy and pre-numeracy skills (as many of us have)? Is it wise to cut time for recess, to trim extra-curriculars, or to push for the maximum amount of homework, to be completed by solitary would-be scholars? Does it make sense to ask teachers to obsess about student achievement over everything else?

The private school sector, which many reformers admire, is not so conflicted. Every high-end school boasts about its commitment to the "whole child," to kids' intellectual, emotional, social, and physical development. These schools would never consider their graduates to be well-educated without an appreciation for the arts, participation in sports, a commitment to community service, and the development of strong character. And judging by the admissions policies of the nation's great universities, our elite higher education institutions hold this holistic view, too. Are these non-academic attributes just "extras" -- luxuries that schools serving poor or working class kids just can't afford? Or are they as essential as academics, for everyone?

Reading, math, and science matter a lot, but they are almost certainly not enough. That is why we must tread carefully when designing next-generation school accountability and teacher evaluation systems. If we accidentally create incentives for schools and teachers to focus solely on academic achievement and ignore the rest, we could be making our children and our nation less competitive, not more so. Let us proceed with care.

Originally published on the Fordham Institute's Flypaper blog.