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Flawed Meritocracy

Are you smart enough? Do you have the aptitude to succeed in a given field or within a specific enterprise? How can we know, for sure, of a person's qualifications or potential?

We have test for that.

As a society, we have been fixated on finding ways to answer these questions with some degree of accuracy. Typically, the application of some form of standardized test has been the go-to strategy. They are convenient, efficient, and easily proctored and scored. But, are they, or have they been, accurate in providing the kind of information they were intended to produce? Some would claim that they are, those entities that Peter Sacks labels the "gatekeepers of meritocracy" - educators, academic institutions, military recruiters and employers. Really? Are they sure, absolutely confident, that these measurements can tell the story about a person with 100% accuracy, 100% of the time? If they truly believe that these tests are this reliable, I would humbly suggest that they are fooling themselves. Increasingly, members of their own industries are coming to the same conclusion.

What is "meritocracy?" Quite simply, it is the deliberate selection of people based on some evidence of their ability. Frequently, it takes the form of a mental measurement or "potential to achieve," rather than achievement itself. Meritocracy has evolved to become a system that serves economic interests, and is a very effective means of societal control. Sacks, in his book Standardized Minds - The High Price of America's Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It, suggests that "Americans largely buy into the rules of this rigged game." He goes on to quote a former president of the College Board on the subject of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) as a predictor of college success. "I think we will continue to have something like the SAT to help millions of young people know something about where they stand in the universe of their peers in terms of intellectual aptitudes and readiness for continued learning."

You read that right! This "expert" believes that millions of young people [need to] know something about where they stand in the universe of their peers in terms of intellectual aptitudes and readiness for continued learning. Let's use a test to sort and label, to define and limit the aspirations and futures of young people! If you are as appalled by that suggestion as I am, you will find satisfaction in the realization that our system of meritocracy is indeed flawed, and has largely failed to do what it was intended to accomplish.

That's a good thing.

The tests that serve as the champion strategy of meritocracy are, indeed, "rigged." They favor select populations of people over others. They neglect to consider the cultural implications of the way questions are written and they tend to punish individuals who find it difficult to perform where they are forced to identify the "most likely" or "least offensive" response to a question within the constraints of a limited amount of time. These tests appear to assume that all people think the same way, process information at the same rate and come to the experience from a common perspective. Or, maybe they don't make those assumptions and, instead, target the instrument toward the success of a specific segment of the population. That would be deplorable and unacceptable, if true.

It is true.

Sacks offers several "brutal facts" of American "pseudo-meritocracy." Here is a compelling sample.

  • Nearly 7 in 10 eighth-graders in the bottom quartile on academic achievement tests come from poor and middle classes. Just over 6 in 100 of the poorest eight-graders earned scores in the top quartile, compared to 50 in 100 who had top scores among the wealthiest 25%.

  • One-third of wealthy high school seniors make SAT scores of at least 1,100. That is twice the rate for kids from moderate backgrounds and four times the rate of the poorest high school students.

  • Nearly nine of ten high school seniors from high income families meet the acceptance qualifications for four-year colleges and universities (based on standardized test scores, grades, class rank etc. For low-income students only half meet these qualifications.

Do these statistics fairly reflect the potential of all students, or do they simply re-affirm that a student's postal zip code is the best predictor of how they will perform on these tests of "potential to achieve?"

I abhor the answer. A test is not going to get us there. We've got to do better.

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