Rethinking Assessment

"Get good grades, go to college, and pursue a profession that will deliver a decent standard of living and perhaps a dollop of prestige."[1] That is basically the same spiel that we all received from our parents growing up.  Our parents encouraged us to pursue our talents in order to prosper in life.  If you were good at math and science, you should become a doctor.  If you were better at English and history, become a lawyer. [1]  If you were a student who excelled in academics, all you had to do was get good grades and score well on standardized tests, and your future was pretty much handed to you.

However, what if you were better in the arts or something other than core academics? What if your strengths weren't in logical, critical thinking? Rather, they were in abstract, creative thinking?  What if you wanted to become a designer, an artist, a musician?  What opportunities did you have to shine?

Daniel Pink writes, "If the global supply chain ever confronted a shortage of NO. 2 pencils, the American education system might collapse. From the time children are able to grasp one of these wooden writing sticks, they use them to take an endless battery of tests that purport to measure their current ability and future potential." [1]

In elementary school, we assess children's IQ's.  Later on, we measure their skill in reading and math, then plot their scores against children from the rest of the state, the country, and the world. By the time kids arrive in high school, they're preparing for the SAT, "the desert they must cross to reach the promised land of a good job and a happy life." [1]

“If you don’t do well on the SAT,” Sternberg says, “Everywhere you turn the access routes to success in our society are blocked.” [2]  The SAT is a measure of skills in reading, math, and most recently, writing.  These skills are typically "left-brain" oriented and focus on sequential, logical and analytical thinking.  This is the only skill-set that is tested for high school students to predict their future success in college and in the workplace.

What if you were a student that is more right-brain oriented?  There is currently no mandated standardized assessment that measures this nonlinear, intuitive and holistic thinking.  However, you could find one of these tests in New Haven, Connecticut, where a Yale University psychology professor is developing an alternative SAT. "Professor Robert Sternberg calls his test the Rainbow Project and it certainly sounds like a lot more fun than the pressure-packed exam many of us endured as teenagers." [1]

In Sternberg’s test, students are given five blank New Yorker cartoons and must craft humorous captions for each one. They must also write or narrate a story, using as their guide only a title supplied by the test givers (sample title: “The Octopus’s Sneakers”). And students are presented with various real-life challenges such as arriving at a party where they don’t know anybody, or trying to convince friends to help move furniture and asked how’d they’d respond. [2]

"Although still in its experimental stages," Pink writes, "The Rainbow Project has been twice as successful as the SAT in predicting how well students perform in college. What’s more, the persistent gap in performance between white students and racial minorities evident on the SAT narrows considerably on the test."

My point is that we should be providing assessments for our students that measure both critical thinking and creative thinking in order to more accurately measure students' current ability and future potential.  By failing to assess this type of thinking, we are completely disregarding the kind of "right-brain" attributes such as people skills, emotional intelligence, imagination, and creativity.  There are plenty of professions out there for "right-brain" thinkers that are not just for inventors, artists, and entrepreneurs, but also for counselors, therapists, schoolteachers and salespeople.

I agree with Daniel Pink when he says that "We are moving from an economy and a society built on the logical, linear, computer-like capabilities of the Information Age to an economy and a society built on the inventive, empathic, big-picture capabilities of what's rising in its place, the Conceptual Age."

We live in such a left brain world ... and here’s this whole other world that we must integrate in order to meet the challenges of the next century.  Let's rethink assessment and work together to create authentic opportunities for our students to demonstrate both creative and critical thinking to prepare them for their future.

For your consideration

1.  Right-brain thinking is often more difficult to assess.  What types of prompts would you have your students complete to measure creative, critical thinking?

2.  How might we integrate these types of assessments (such as the Rainbow Project) into our curriculum to also measure learning and understanding in our content areas?

  1. Pink, D. (2005). A whole new mind: Moving from the information age to the conceptual age. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.
  2. Sternberg, R. (2003). Rainbow Project: Enhancing the SAT Through Assessments of analytical, practical, and creative skills