The Nightmare in our Schools, Part 2: The Bigger Test

The Big Test: the Secret History of the American Meritocracy by Nicholas Lemann reveals the story of how standardized testing for college entrance came about. In the 1940s and '50s, two Harvard edu

The Big Test: the Secret History of the American Meritocracy by Nicholas Lemann reveals the story of how standardized testing for college entrance came about.

In the 1940s and '50s, two Harvard educators sought a way of selecting an educational elite to replace college entrance based on America's traditional landowner aristocracy. Rather than just rich men's sons going to Ivy League schools, the idea was to select an intelligentsia. This type of selection was considered inherently meritorious. It was thought that those selected would opt for lives of public service rather than, say, climbing the corporate ladder.

Enthralled with the notion of IQ and intellectual ascendancy, these men zeroed in on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) for applicant selection. Their testing service first found subjects in the armed forces, then at Harvard itself, then at other schools.

Carl Brigham, inventor of the SAT, blocked its use for selection until his own death. The SAT, he asserted, was a research tool, in no way appropriate for selecting an intelligent elite. If we used this test for such a purpose, Brigham said, we'd select out all sorts of intelligence and skill from higher education, depriving society of huge amounts of talent.

Indeed, the test turned out to have very little validity. It didn't predict differences in college performance among students more than about 15 to 20 percent of the time. But, said the proponents, it is reliable: You can't improve your score by cramming, so the test does measure something stable about you.

This notion of reliability was shattered by Stanley Kaplan, who found he could train high school students to improve their scores. In other words, kids could be trained to produce whatever the SAT measures — although we still don't know what that is. We do know it's not really true merit: It doesn't specifically or reliably measure talent, job ability, humor, wit, intelligence, morality or character.

"The test movement," Brigham said, "came to this country accompanied by one of the most glorious fallacies in the history of science, namely, that the tests measured native intelligence. ... I hope nobody believes that now. The test scores are very definitely a composite of (many factors) and everything else, relevant and irrelevant."

Predictably, then, to the dismay of college administrators, bright minority students appeared to score lower than their white counterparts on the test, and this wasn't explained by "aptitude" or IQ. The test, as a composite, measures differences in cultural background. By using it, the "meritocracy" became another form of aristocracy.

Nonetheless, without national or even public debate, SAT scores were put into widespread use, fundamentally influencing the collegiate system.

Lemann's conclusion in The Big Test puts all of this in a clear light:

"Our apparatus of meritocracy ... belongs to an older, less distinctively American tradition of using tests and education to select a small governing elite. The founders of the American meritocracy were not supporters of an expanded, opportunity-oriented ... educational system. ... They did, however, believe they were destroying a nascent class system and building a fluid, mobile society. In retrospect, this was vainglorious — you can't undermine social rank by setting up an elaborate process of ranking. Fifty years later, their creation looks more and more like what it was intended to replace."

Beyond Lemann's analysis of higher education, by using these scores, two things happened to severely damage early education: We developed the belief that such scores measure something important for anyone at any level of education, even though we have no idea what; then, we began developing national testing systems for earlier grades.

Since the variability in learning development widens more and more based on the youth of the person, however, what little usefulness standardized scores might have had in the first place is gone. So, what happens when we rely on the meaningless?

Proficiency tests and even grades not only don't represent learning but actually tend to prevent the development of in-depth learning skills. By teaching to tests, we train generations of children to become deficient adults, albeit training them at the same time to compete and advance based on an ability to score high on tests — that is, to climb an "academically" sanctioned social ladder.

We're now engaged in making teaching superficial as well. Tying teacher salaries to class scores forces teaching methods to bolster and support an illusion of meaning in these scores. Teaching is to the test rather than to the child.

But teaching to tests early on doesn't have a positive effect. Rather, evaluation of the child and the child's learning ability are distorted.

The idea that we can develop a score to measure and place children creates an inappropriate educational structure. For example, although research clearly demonstrates that schools reaching student numbers over 500 become more and more educationally untenable, we continue to stuff buildings full and expand existing buildings. Part of this is due to community pressures, but part is due to the notion we can classify and sort large numbers of students based on measurement.

What's on paper becomes important. The teacher's and administrator's personal relationship with students becomes superficial. Children with insight become more alienated and hostile.

Even worse in terms of structuring, we're actively engaged in a negligent stratification of students based on testing. For example, look at a couple of our suburban 7th grades. Students, based on grades and proficiency scores in 6th grade, are divided into as many as four or five categories of scoring ability, which is generally an attempt to move those with high academic status in junior high to the same or better status in high school. The more comprehensive form of a subject is taught to the higher scorers, while the regular "college prep" classes or below average "standard" classes miss out.

A disturbing question is: Are teachers with the most experience, who are perhaps needed in the slower classes, being channeled into the "smarter levels" because of seniority? More frighteningly, how many children, because of stratification, are missing out on subject matter necessary to their own understanding?

In reality, we know from research and experience that stratification is harmful. Consider that children with learning disabilities, when placed in gifted classrooms and taught to their ability, do far better in the long run than similar children separated into "special" classes. Thus, by slicing up the bell curve, we teach certain children to develop sub-optimally.

Ironically, one way to keep your child in the upper strata is to determine that he or she is learning disabled. Then, you can essentially force the school to honor an individualized education plan promoting your child's learning abilities rather than any specific deficit.

I asked one placement counselor for a validity measurement on his school's system of placement and got a blank stare. "But how do you know," I insisted, "that your system of placement relates to anything about the true abilities of the child. Where's your statistical follow up?" More blank staring and embarrassment.

The truth is that there wasn't any correlation between classification and the child's reality, past, present or future. This was a man who had just finished glibly referring to his school as "an academic institution." Despite what seemed to be his discomfort from my questioning, he didn't remember who I was two weeks later.

Parents get pulled into this rat race and soon figure out that "college prep" now means average, "honors" means above average and "advanced" means going to a better college. To place the child at an advanced level in high school, according to most parents, necessitates ensuring that your child is at least at the honors level in 8th grade.

What the testing, grading, separation system entails, then, is sectioning the bell curve of various scores into a hierarchy of presumed merit. That merit, however, is uni-dimensional.

Score and grade performance are promoted by teachers rewarded for score outcomes. Performance, instead of deep learning, is grabbed by the children most aggressively seeking advancement. Parents of these children often spend their time and energy with teachers ensuring optimal grades. Individualized intelligence and personality are minimized. On the contrary, to summarize available research, we are promoting the qualities of competition, acquisitiveness, superficial learning, greed and egotism over contemplation, focus outside of the self, cooperation, proper development of the mind and depth of thought.

Schools are becoming political and economic institutions rather than centers of learning.

If not a learning environment, then what? A scoring environment. Not a system geared to bringing out and enhancing talent, but a competitive system promoting social position. Such classification allows large numbers of the population to be moved through a system based on paperwork, much like the product of a corporation.

What is missing in all of this is true, personal achievement, not to mention a child's relationship to a wider community. As Lemann implies, the selection of a college student, or graduate student for that matter, should entail consideration of multiple factors beyond test taking ability. One's completed work, for example. One's community service, communication ability, dedication and talent.

Children will continue to suffer in all of this semi-conscious collusion because we no longer trust children to develop. We want to control them, producing our meager notion of a good outcome.

"Those who like to think of American life as a great race should think of the race as beginning, not ending, when school has been completed," Lemann writes. "The purpose of schools should be to expand opportunity, not to determine results."

We have negligently left the evaluation of young people in the hands of systems which can't validly do such an evaluation. That evaluation is promoting a problematic adult population which views itself as educated, worthy and deserving of reward yet works within a self-serving and willfully ignorant paradigm.

There's no better formula for fueling the overzealous expansion of a pseudo-intellectual world with problems we don't know how to solve.

Scroll to read more News Feature articles
Join the CityBeat Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join CityBeat Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.