The redesigned MCAS may have yielded lower scores for Massachusetts students, but is our focus on the right place?    

Boston Globe reporter James Vazniz points out that this year’s tests were apparently redesigned to more rigorously test students’ academic knowledge, providing more accurate data about whether students will be prepared for future success. 

Explaining the MCAS redesign, Vaznis writes: “College officials complain that too many students cannot handle college-level work, forcing them to take remedial courses, even though they scored well on the old MCAS. Employers also say they’ve had difficulty hiring workers who can think critically and communicate clearly."

As employers seem to understand, success is tied to more than academic knowledge. In fact, evidence suggests that the most important factor in success is not the academic knowledge we acquire but rather the social, emotional, and cognitive skills we develop in order to apply that knowledge in the real world. These skills include thinking critically, as well as the ability to self-regulate, to persevere, to be empathic, to understand and be understood, and other social and emotional skills often included under the broad label of “Emotional Intelligence.”

While some schools are beginning to integrate the teaching of these competencies into school curricula, we can do a much better job of promoting these skills, both in grade school and even more importantly, in early childhood. In one widely cited study that reviewed 213 studies, it was shown that school-based programs that promote students’ social and emotional competence result in an average 11 percentile point gain on academic achievement tests.

Once more, further research has shown that the time to start promoting these competencies is in early childhood, which is the most sensitive period of neuroplasticity in a child’s development. So important are these skills in children’s early development that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) which evaluates global education recently announced the debut of their “Baby PISA” assessment, aimed to evaluate five-year-olds globally not only on emerging literacy and numeracy skills, but also on self-regulation, and social and emotional skills.

At our core, educators strive to help our children succeed. Vaznis writes in his piece that “the dramatic drop in performance could cause schools to rethink the way they are teaching to make sure they are covering all the material students will be tested on.”

Rethinking how we teach is important. But the “material” we are teaching should not simply be academic content. Rather, we need to do a better job of instilling in our children from birth the social, emotional, and cognitive skills they need to succeed.