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What Does 'Being Smart' Mean?

A Lesson from a 'C' Student

Publication Date: 2003-05-17

Anne Wheelock reminds us something about the notorious MCAS that is true of all high-stakes tests: "If we learn one thing from Jennifer Mueller's experience, it is that MCAS unrealistically and unnecessarily narrows the definition of what it means to use our minds well."

This week Massachusetts applauded 32 new Rhodes scholarship winners, the "best and brightest" of young Americans. These are the "A" students we admired in high school, many now attending Yale, Harvard and Cornell. They are the young people who help define what it means to be smart.

Still, it was "C" student Jennifer Mueller, a Whitman-Hanson High School senior with "failing" MCAS math scores, who reminded us that Rhodes scholars don't have the last word on intelligence.

Last week, Mueller made headlines when she persuaded education officials that an "incorrect" answer to a tricky 10th grade MCAS math problem should be accepted as "correct."

Like the princess who kissed the frog, Jennifer's solution transformed 449 students labeled "incompetent" into young adults deemed ready for a high school diploma. Other students suddenly became "smarter" as they were whisked out of the "needs improvement" category and turned into "proficient" math students.

Every year, MCAS puts "C" students like Jennifer Mueller at risk, not because they aren't smart, but because they may think and solve problems in unusual ways. Like many standardized tests, MCAS consists mostly of multiple-choice questions, each with one right answer. Students who think "outside the box," who reason, communicate and apply their knowledge in unconventional ways, can easily fall short of passing MCAS.

One problem is that good thinking is often more complex, and less orthodox, than is easily measured by testing. According to Harvard researcher Howard Gardner, human intelligence has nine different facets. Many of us develop intelligence primarily along verbal and numerical lines. Some of us grasp concepts better by visualizing relationships among different variables or through music, physical activity, interpersonal exchanges or intrapersonal reflection. Some learn through interaction with the natural world. Still others demonstrate intelligence, leading compatriots toward a goal.

Jennifer Mueller describes herself as a "visual learner." She thinks problems through by looking for patterns in spatial relationships and communicating through images. These are exactly the skills she will need to realize her dream to become an interpreter for the hearing-impaired. They are also skills valued by architects, pilots and map-makers. But these strengths put Jennifer at a disadvantage when it comes to MCAS, a test that relies mostly on conventional multiple-choice questions, each with only one right answer.

If we learn one thing from Jennifer Mueller's experience, it is that MCAS unrealistically and unnecessarily narrows the definition of what it means to use our minds well. Selecting the conventional answers rates the highest marks. While we applaud high MCAS scores, we can no longer be sure that students who "fail" are not also using their minds in intelligent, albeit atypical, ways.

Nor can we be sure that MCAS remediation will necessarily help students improve their thinking. Tutoring in test-taking skills may help students spot the "right" answers to sample MCAS questions. But it may also discourage students from thinking independently and teach students to avoid the messier solutions that come with real-world problem solving. After weeks of drilling for the next retest, how many students will have Jennifer's confidence that one of their own answers could be as valid as the answer the test company serves up to them?

The one-right-answer mode of testing that MCAS represents betrays too many of our students who learn in divergent ways. Assessments should work to improve learning for all students. This means we must take less interest in how MCAS scores stack up and more interest in the quality of products students create for use in the real world. When real student work is the basis for assessing student learning, students have more routes to demonstrate their unique strengths and improve weaknesses.

Our state needs an assessment system that values all kinds of minds, not just a few. Rather than pour millions of dollars into MCAS, we should keep standardized testing to a minimum while we maximize the use of high-quality, in-depth assessments based on student projects and performances in each subject area. Bills filed in the legislature by Sen. Cynthia Creem, Rep. Alice Wolf and others would facilitate this approach. They deserve our support.

This commentary appeared in the Standard-Times on December 14, 2002

Anne Wheelock of Jamaica Plain is a senior research associate with the National Board on Testing and Public Policy at Boston College. She is the author of "Safe To Be Smart: Building a Culture for Standards-Based Reform in the Middle Grades."

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