Why Test Scores and Grades Have Nothing to Do with Intellectual Ability

In education circles, we tend to use the term “assessment” to describe the evaluation of learning. It is a catch-all word that is often misapplied and misunderstood, even within educational circles, often to the profound detriment of many students.

The first reason we usually do such a poor job of assessment is because we don’t understand what learning is. In traditional school settings we mistake memorization and task completion for the rich, highly complex neurological, cognitive, psychological and longitudinal process that learning actually is.

A secondary problem with assessment in education today is that, we can’t actually “see” someone learning, but schools behave as if we can. In classroom settings, we tend to infer learning using really crude, time-based instruments such as standardized and criterion-referenced tests (how many questions students can answer or problems they can solve out of a total number of items on an assignment or test). In fact, these instruments are so crude and so limited, that they are effectively useless for actually measuring learning.

These shortcomings in assessment are not just a superficial problem. Our entire educational system is built on an assessment model that is not only ineffective at assessing meaningful learning, but the assessments themselves end up impacting students in profound ways from how they are “tracked” to what educational opportunities are offered to how they ultimately see themselves as learners.

And the system is insidious in the manner that it perpetuates “success” for learners who do well and punishes those who do not. In other words, students who do well on widely used assessment tools are often provided what would be considered desirable learning opportunities such as honors classes, enriched curriculum, promotion to higher grade levels, admission to exclusive colleges, and others because their high scores “qualify” them for these opportunities. Similarly, students who do poorly are not only often denied the “good stuff,” but are “tracked” into lower level classes and curricula such as special education, “resource” programs, remedial classes, etc.

This reality tends to disproportionately favor middle and upper class, white students, while disfavoring lower income students of color. This dynamic is a cultural, rather than pedagogical, phenomenon. Advantaged students are acculturated in many ways that make them “better matches” for common assessment tools. In other words, many of the values and experiences that advantaged students have are precisely the same values and experiences that the tests are based on. The erroneous assumption is that common assessment tools are a measure of a student’s intellectual abilities. They are not. They simply measure a person’s ability to answer a discreet, isolated set of questions in the context and format generated by the test, in the time allotted.

Learning is an intensely personal and unique phenomenon. It is biologically and psychologically different from person to person and from setting to setting. Although we can “observe” learning in limited ways in terms of brain function, we cannot, at the time it is happening, determine how a given learning experience will affect or change a given learner in terms of belief systems, self-concept, long-term problem solving, or even spirituality. And this leads to the second reason we don’t truly know what students (or any of us) are learning at any given time. Simply put, learning, particularly the deepest brain-changing learning, takes time. In most school environments, assessment is a low-level, recall based activity that takes place immediately after students are exposed to content. This is why “cramming” is a time honored practice of preparing for tests.

In reality, the connections that a learning experience creates in an individual may not have application for hours or days or years. One learning experience may interact with another (from the past, or in the future) in ways that are unimaginable. And ultimately, we simply don’t know what we know or what we can do until a relevant, authentic challenge arises that requires us to apply our knowledge and skills.

And this reality has dramatic implications for typical school environments and the students in them. In fact, most assessment activities in formal school settings are in fundamental contradiction to how human beings actually learn and normally manifest new skills and knowledge.

The big take-away here is that test scores and grades do not define us. They are unfortunately important within the educational system, but they do not measure our intellectual capabilities or what we have learned. And, something very important to remember is that they don’t even correlate with success in life out of school! So, if you are someone who has always done well with traditional, school-based assessment, then you will be advantaged in helpful ways, and that’s a plus. If you are not someone that has done well with traditional school-based assessment, you will face some unfortunate road-blocks and unfounded assumptions, but know that your real intellectual abilities are far in excess of what your test scores and grades show. And, your likelihood of achieving success in life is about non-cognitive skills such as perseverance, empathy, and emotional intelligence, not test scores and grade point average!

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