This past July Newsweek reported on an emerging “Creativity Crisis.” According to research described in their report, American kids are steadily losing their creativity. Presciently, just a few days before this article appeared, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a major economic development bill with a small provision establishing an index to measure creative education in the public schools. In authorizing this creativity index, the Legislature quietly waded into an ongoing educational debate over high stakes testing and how to best prepare our children for success in the state’s new economy.

The creativity crisis Newsweek uncovered was revealed by analysis of results from tests to measure creative thought. Kids around the world have been taking these tests for over 50 years. Follow-up studies show they have an impressive track record picking out the youth most likely to become successful entrepreneurs and inventors.

Researchers don’t know why, but around 1990 these creativity scores began falling for US children. It could simply be that kids started spending too many hours in front of TVs and computers. But the researchers also point to the increasing focus on standardized testing as another potential explanation for falling creativity.

If there’s truly a relationship between pressure to perform on standardized tests and declining creativity, we should be concerned. Massachusetts has arguably placed more emphasis on standardized tests than any other state, and emphasis on these tests is only likely to build as efforts to tie teacher pay to performance gain traction. At the same time, Massachusetts is leading the nation toward an economy that’s increasingly driven by innovation.

The state’s Creativity Index will measure creative education opportunities in public schools. This will certainly provide valuable information, but given how critical creative thinking is to our economy, Secretary of Education Paul Reville has joined other leaders in a push to integrate creativity thinking skills directly into the state’s curriculum framework and assessment tools.

The report of Secretary Reville’s 21st Century Skills Task Force released in November 2008 called for a “Creative Challenge Index” similar to the one advanced in last summer’s economic development bill, but it also went much further, proposing to evaluate the creativity skills of individual students on the MCAS test.

Advocates for 21st Century skills say this will be in addition to and not in place of the current rigorous test. But the most ardent MCAS backers see these “soft skills” as a distraction, and they fear 21st Century skills could become a Trojan horse that one day undermines the state’s commitment to high MCAS standards.

This debate is taking place outside of Massachusetts as well. Diane Ravitch, a leading expert on education policy nationally, has called the push for 21st century skills “an old familiar song,” sizing it up as just another education fad that’s come and gone in different forms over the years. This assessment completely ignores today’s new economic realities. Manufacturing employment made up more than a quarter of all jobs for much of the last century. A decade into the 21st Century, just 7 percent of US jobs are in manufacturing. Nostalgically pushing old-fashioned writing, reading, and arithmetic could seriously jeopardize the state’s economic future.

This is not to say that students don’t need strong fundamental skills and knowledge. A few supporters of 21st Century skills might prefer to do away with the MCAS altogether, but MCAS advocates shouldn’t adopt common misconceptions that have led others to discount the value of evaluating creativity more rigorously out of spite for this small minority. First, the relationship between high academic standards and creative thinking isn’t a zero sum game. As Newsweek put it,

The argument that we can’t teach creativity because kids already have too much to learn is a false trade-off. Creativity isn’t about freedom from facts. Rather, fact-finding and deep research are vital stages in the creative process.

Second, the conventional thinking that creativity cannot be taught is false. Peer reviewed studies find that students who practice creative activities are able to solve creative problems more efficiently.

New analysis by the Rennie Center shows advocates for 21st Century skills have strong support among school leaders. A majority of principals and superintendents believe these skills should be incorporated in the MCAS assessment. Now they just need more education policy experts to acknowledge the imperative that economic development leaders have been pushing.

In a recent column celebrating the state’s entrepreneurial environment, Scott Kirsner correctly pointed out that Massachusetts is in an enviable position. But he didn’t talk about how many of the entrepreneurs and innovators launching new businesses here in Massachusetts are natives of the Commonwealth. Just like kids born in Hawaii can become the world’s greatest surfers if they choose to ride the waves splashing at their shores, Bay State students taught to engage creatively can benefit from the entrepreneurial exchanges taking place all around them. The most important question for us now is how can we best prepare them for this opportunity.

Ben Forman is research director at MassINC. Kelsey Muraoka is a senior at Boston College and an intern at MassINC.