Home > Uncategorized > Standardized Tests Giving Us Smart Fools… But Our World Seeks Wisdom, Not Knowledge

Standardized Tests Giving Us Smart Fools… But Our World Seeks Wisdom, Not Knowledge

July 2, 2017

Diane Ravitch’s blog provided a link to a Scientific American interview with eminent psychologist and testing expert Robert Sternberg who recently received recognition from the Association for Psychological Science Association for his lifetime contributions to psychology. In the introductory paragraph to the interview, edited by Claudia Wallis, she describes Dr. Sternberg’s thinking on intelligence as follows:

Sternberg, who has studied intelligence and intelligence testing for decades, is well known for his “triarchic theory of intelligence,” which identifies three kinds of smarts: the analytic type reflected in IQ scores; practical intelligence, which is more relevant for real-life problem solving; and creativity.

In the interview, Dr. Sternberg decries public education’s emphasis on analytic knowledge, which has resulted in an increase in IQ scores of 30+ points over several decades but has not yielded the kind of knowledge required to sustain a highly functioning society. Here’s Dr. Sternberg’s synopsis:

Tests like the SATACT, the GRE—what I call the alphabet tests—are reasonably good measures of academic kinds of knowledge, plus general intelligence and related skills. They are highly correlated with IQ tests and they predict a lot of things in life: academic performance to some extent, salary, level of job you will reach to a minor extent—but they are very limited. What I suggested in my talk today is that they may actually be hurting us. Our overemphasis on narrow academic skills—the kinds that get you high grades in school—can be a bad thing for several reasons. You end up with people who are good at taking tests and fiddling with phones and computers, and those are good skills but they are not tantamount to the skills we need to make the world a better place…

What I argue is that intelligence that’s not modulated and moderated by creativity, common sense and wisdom is not such a positive thing to have. What it leads to is people who are very good at advancing themselves, often at other people’s expense. We may not just be selecting the wrong people, we may be developing an incomplete set of skills—and we need to look at things that will make the world a better place.

Of course looking at “…things that will make make the world a better place” is the easy part. Agreeing on those things, teaching those things, and measuring those things will be the challenge. Ms. Wallis probes Dr. Sternberg on “Wisdom” and got the following responses:

Wisdom is about using your abilities and knowledge not just for your own selfish ends and for people like you. It’s about using them to help achieve a common good by balancing your own interests with other people’s and with high-order interests through the infusion of positive ethical values…

You learn wisdom through role-modeling. You can start learning that when you are six or seven. But if you start learning what our schools are teaching, which is how to prepare for the next statewide mastery tests, it crowds out of the curriculum the things that used to be essential. If you look at the old McGuffey Readers, they were as much about teaching good values and good ethics and good citizenship as about teaching reading. It’s not so much about teaching what to do but how to reason ethically; to go through an ethical problem and ask: How do I arrive at the right solution?

When Ms. Wallis asked if we have less wisdom now than in the past, Dr. Sternberg had a sharp response:

Not only do we not encourage creativity, common sense and wisdom, I think a lot of us don’t even value them anymore. They’re so distant from what’s being taught in schools. Even in a lot of religious institutions we’ve seen a lot of ethical and legal problems arise. So if you’re not learning these skills in school or through religion or your parents, where are you going to learn them? We get people who view the world as being about people like themselves. We get this kind of tribalism.

Dr. Sternberg didn’t say so explicitly, but the kind of tribalism that sets todays ethical standards comes from “cultures” that celebrates “outlaws” and anti-establishment behavior. Voters knew that Donald Trump was a misogynist who cheated on his wife, a ruthless businessman who viewed cheating on his taxes as a shrewd business move, and an anti-intellectual who loved “the uneducated” and despised the “intellectual elites”. The tribal cultures that hold Mr. Trump in high esteem, the tribal evangelical culture, and the tribal gun culture ultimately elected a man who opposed the rule of law and the establishment. And Dr. Sternberg seems this tribalism as a by-product of our test culture that places a premium on teaching individual test-taking skills at the expense of “teaching good values and good ethics and good citizenship“.

I concur with Dr. Sternberg. What gets tested gets taught, and we have ignored testing for the complicated and relatively difficult to measure inter-personal and intra-personal skills that lead to “good values and good ethics and good citizenship” favoring instead the relatively inexpensive and easy to measure analytic skills associated with reading and arithmetic. We haven’t taught the important skills and we are witnessing the by-product when those who do not possess the skills needed to thrive in our new economy band together  in tribes of like-minded world views. Is there a way out of the woods? Dr. Sternberg remains optimistic:

If one could convince even a few universities and schools to try to follow a different direction, others might follow. If you start encouraging a creative attitude, to defy the crowd and to defy the zeitgeist, and if you teach people to think for themselves and how what they do affects others, I think it’s a no-lose proposition. And these things can be taught and they can be tested.

In a world that increasingly operates in echo chambers and a world where “choice” may result in children focusing even more on test-taking skills and attending schools with fellow tribal members, it may be difficult to encourage creative, independent thinking that defies the crowd and defies the Zeitgeist. We faee an uphill battle in getting back to common ground where all of our citizens agree on what constitutes “good values and good ethics and good citizenship“.


  1. Elyssa Gersen-Thurman
    July 2, 2017 at 2:26 pm

    I’m a terrible test taker with a successful career. It wasn’t until I got out of high school and into the right college and graduate school program that I realized that there are multiple ways to learn and measure mastery and then I truly thrived.

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