01/09/2014 03:28 pm ET Updated Mar 11, 2014

High Test Scores Reflect Shallow Learning Experience for Boston Public School Students

The McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT released a study last month that found that while some Boston public schools are doing well at increasing student scores on high-stakes assessment tests, they are failing to teach students how to perform on tests of "fluid intelligence" akin to what our allies at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation call the "deeper learning" skills. These skills are harder to measure and cannot be determined only through an on-demand sit-down test. They are acquired through deeper learning experiences and are exactly the skills and dispositions needed for future success in post-secondary school, workforce, and in life.

I will never forget when I worked in a pilot school and performance assessments were taking place. Students were being assessed through the performance of complex experiments that required the making of music by striking water-filled glasses. They worked together in teams to match the melodies they read from a sheet of music. One student per group had instructions on how to fill the water into the glasses. Another drummed sticks against the glasses to get the sound, and a third read the sheet music. The assessment was as much about doing the experiment as it was about communicating as a group.

Eventually, one student got it and she was doing it all by herself while the other members of her group just sat there watching her. On their assessment, this group scored quite well on their ability to complete the experiment, but poorly on their collaboration as a team. The second group of students sat struggling with the assignment and failing to work together to solve the problem. They scored poorly on both levels of assessment. Finally, a third group talked amongst themselves and was able to figure out what they were supposed to do. Each member shared the information that they had with the other members of the group, and they scored highly on both achievement and collaboration.

What does this kind of assessment tell us about the way we currently assess our students? Ultimately, that it's possible for students to excel on standardized tests, but have very few of the necessary skills to apply the knowledge they've retained. Alternately, it's also possible that students who score poorly on standardized tests could demonstrate mastery of those skills in different ways. In the end, we get what we ask for when we assess students with a one-size-fits-all approach: simple skills driven by accountability approaches defined by narrow testing.

Education should be like a well-woven rope of three sturdy strands. One strand of this rope has all of the concrete basic skills that high-stakes tests seem to assess fairly well. Another strand has those deeper learning skills that these tests do not assess very well. A third strand includes the dispositions that students bring to their learning experience. Teachers should know that if they tightly weave these three things together, then they form a tight sinew that students can use to lift themselves up in the world. This kind of combination makes students prepared for college, career and life -- not just how they do on a test.