Thursday, 25 April 2013

Can standardised tests measure creativity?

Despite their widespread use in education (particularly in the US), standardised tests are often criticised for being too narrowly focussed. As the education theoriest William Ayers argued, "Standardized tests can’t measure initiative, creativity, imagination, conceptual thinking, curiosity, effort, irony, judgment, commitment, nuance, good will, ethical reflection, or a host of other valuable dispositions and attributes."

Many of the traits Ayers refers to are clearly very difficult to measure––some would say impossible. However, a recent study by Park et al., entitled Ability Differences Among People Who Have Commensurate Degrees Matter for Scientific Creativity, looked to see whether standardised test scores were predictive of one particular such trait, namely scientific creativity. Their sample comprised participants from the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, each of whom was in the top 1% of (age-adjusted) mathematical ability in childhood. They followed these individuals' careers, and looked to see whether the ones who scored highest in the math section of the SAT (SAT-M) at age 13 had tended to be more creative in adulthood. Creativity was measured in several ways: number of scientific publications in peer-reviewed journals, number of humanities publications in peer-reviewed journals, number of patents, and number of patents for Fortune 500 companies.

As to publications in peer-reviewed journals, they found (as shown below) that, for both master's and doctoral degree holders, individuals who scored in the top quartile of the group's SAT-M scores were significantly more likely to have had at least one scientific publication than those who scored in the bottom quartile. Unsurprisingly, there were no significant differences between the top and bottom quartiles in the proportion having had at least one humanities publication. As to patents, they found--once again--that those who scored in the top quartile were significantly more likely to have had at least one than those who scored in the bottom quartile. And this held for both kinds of patent and all three degree-types.

Overall, Park et al.'s findings run contrary to Ayer's claim that standardised tests cannot measure creativity. As a follow-up, it would be interesting to see whether, among children gifted in verbal reasoning, SAT-V score at age 13 is predictive of subsequent achievement in, say, journalism and the humanities.

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