Our society is currently obsessed with the politically powerful but biologically naive search for an inexpensive, efficient, one-size-fits-all assessment system that precisely measures the knowledge and skills of an imprecise developing brain.

It’s becoming increasingly obvious to educators and patrons alike that this is an almost impossible challenge. Standards and assessment are certainly important, but the current escalating system is seriously flawed in its almost total focus on easily measured correct responses, and disregard for the cognitive processes that led to the responses.

At some point school patrons will begin to wonder why we’re spending vast sums on high stakes assessment programs that measure only part of a student’s cognitive capabilities, when practically all fourth graders become fifth graders anyway. What’s the point of an expensive, limited, stressful assessment program that discovers that most students in most schools are progressing pretty much as expected—and educators are already aware of and working with those who aren’t? Why not put at least the irrelevant part of the assessment costs into program development?

When that day arrives, educators must be ready with an alternative approach or we’ll once again be subjected to an inappropriate, ineffective political solution to a complex educational problem. This two-part column will explore the issue. This column will focus on the cognitive base of the problem, and next month’s column will propose a solution.

A Biological Perspective
During the latter part of the 20th century, educators shifted from a unitary view of intelligence and embraced the concept of multiple intelligences—a complex of collaborating cognitive capabilities. Several excellent theories emerged, notably those of Gardner (1983), Sternberg (1985), and Perkins (1995), that encouraged educators to think differently about teaching and learning. We thus became excited about cognition as an internal process that can soar in many directions, but we seemingly couldn’t abandon an institutional focus on the assessed mastery of facts and skills.

In The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind, Elkhonon Goldberg (2001) explores the kinds of knowledge and solutions we use when responding to challenges. His excellent analysis of our brain’s executive systems and functions will help educators re-examine important troublesome issues in curriculum and assessment.

We live in a principally ambiguous social world, and our cognitive interests and capabilities reflect this. We tend to prefer metaphor to reality, estimation to precision, and negotiation to coercion, but we do need to know how to deal effectively with each of these six concepts. Goldberg uses the terms veridical and adaptive knowledge in his analysis of our brain’s thinking and decision-making systems.

Veridical Knowledge and Decisions
Veridical knowledge is knowing the answer to a problem that has a single correct answer: 6X5=30, Salem is the capital of Oregon, c-a-t spells cat. It’s the product-oriented essence of true/false – and it’s the quintessential element of such culturally popular activities as crossword puzzles and TV quiz shows (in which the winning contestant has the best command of the least important, most obscure veridical information). In school, students typically must discover and remember the hidden answers to clear-cut veridical questions they didn’t ask (and for which they often have no personal context).

Veridical knowledge is an obviously important cognitive (and school assessment) element, but true/false isn’t always as clear-cut as many folks think (Gardner, 1999).

For example, mastering one’s native language is a major juvenile task. The hundreds of thousands of words in our language are veridical in that each represents a clearly defined category. Still, it’s much easier to precisely define some concepts (such as male) than others (such as chair). But even a precisely defined concept (male) may have many synonyms (such as man, gentleman, guy, chap, fellow) that are used interchangeably in common discourse, even though each synonym has a distinct meaning.

Further, English spelling allows for few acceptable variants, but most people could easily read the word accommodate when misspelled in several different ways. Email has further confounded standard spelling with a growing number of abbreviations (such as U for you) that folks easily master and readily use to speed up electronic discourse. Mark Twain’s comment that only an uncreative person can think of but one way to spell a word seems apropos.

Our brain is fortunately sufficiently adaptable so it can function with information that’s only fairly close to precise truth. Further, we tend to off-load information that requires memorized precision to such technologies as calculators, telephone books, spell-checkers, and dictionaries. And even then, the technological precision that email addresses require frustrates our imprecise brain whenever a message gets rejected because of a single-letter error in the address.

Veridical knowledge is important (and especially in children who must master the factual elements of language, arithmetic, science, and social studies), but its cultural precision is overrated, and it’s not the driving cognitive force behind intelligent and wise post-pubertal behavior.

Adaptive Knowledge and Decisions
Goldberg (2001) calls the cognitive processes that lead to a personal preference among alternatives adaptive thought and decision-making. Knowing the names of the presidential candidates is veridical knowledge. Casting my vote is an adaptive decision. Most human thought and decision-making are adaptive, actor-centered. How do I interpret the facts? Which choice is best for me?

We often use veridical information during the process of making an adaptive decision. For example, we look at a restaurant menu before ordering and note such veridical elements as the cost and composition of items. Cost may be important to the price-conscious and ingredients to the allergic – but the issue of what we should order has no correct or incorrect answer. It’s a personal preference based on many factors, and any order is a legitimate decision.

Even U.S. Supreme Court decisions are adaptive. After examining the veridical facts of the case and the relevant carefully worded laws and precedents, the judges may adaptively differ 5-4 on which position in the case is constitutionally correct.

This veridical/adaptive relationship also exists in arts, humanities, and social skills programs that subjectively integrate veridical information into adaptive decisions. All these cognitively important curricular areas have sadly lost their school significance and funding in an era in which precise assessment controls the curricular agenda.

For example, art is a unique expression that’s centered on preference. Thus, if it’s possible to precisely evaluate art, it’s not art but rather reproducible craft. There’s nothing wrong with craft; it’s just not art. When a noted pianist was asked to explain the difference between a piano player and a pianist, he responded that anyone can play the correct notes. That response gets to the heart of the issue. Playing the correct notes (a veridical act) is important, but the aesthetics of playing the correct notes with adaptive style and grace is more important.

Consider professional basketball. Veridical information (such as scores, averages, and records) dominates sports reporting. Fans want their team to win, but they’re generally more interested in observing the many adaptive decisions that occur during a game—as elite players follow set plays or improvise shots, coaches send players in and out of the game, and referees respond to or ignore violations. Perhaps more important, fans want both teams to play with the creative style and grace expected of athletic virtuosos. It will thus be possible to identify the champion with veridical certainty at the end of the NBA playoffs, but something is seriously missing in the enterprise if that’s all the long season was about. So is it also with schools and test scores.

Scientists compare the functions of our brain’s marvelous adaptive prefrontal cortex to the CEO of a corporation, or to the conductor of a symphony orchestra. Located behind our forehead, it’s a unique cognitive system in that it’s directly interconnected with every distinct functional unit of our brain (Goldberg, 2001), and so it plays the key role in integrating information from hundreds of neuronal systems into a preference, an adaptive decision.

The decision may later prove to be right or wrong, but it’s a human decision that moves us beyond being a mere reactive true or false machine into the universe of intelligence and the possibility of wisdom.

School standards and assessment policies should thus focus principally on our conscious brain’s definitive adaptive prefrontal functions rather than on the recall of veridical facts that often enhance no adaptive decision the student is ever apt to make.

Thus, two very important issues in resolving our current dilemma with standards and assessment are our seeming inability to separate objective true/false from subjective right/wrong, and our belief that in the education of our young, knowing veridical true/false trumps adaptive right/wrong, beautiful/ugly, fair/unfair, ethical/unethical and all the other preference-driven decisions that humans continuously make. Failures in life are more often the result of poor personal, social, and vocational adaptive choices than of not knowing the veridical information in a standardized assessment program.

Next month’s column will propose a way out of the current dilemma.