It’s 9:01 PM, and I’m looking at a photo.
It’s a photo of a bunch of smiling teenagers. They’re standing in a rather official-looking building with wood-paneled walls and a clock on the wall. They are exuberant. Close. Joyful—and, perhaps, joyfully smug. I have known some of them since middle school, others since sophomore or junior year. They are my classmates. My friends. They are my high school’s National Merit scholars, preparing to receive official district commendations.
This group of students will get the best that life can hand them. They are getting into Ivy League schools. Prestigious science research summer programs. Becoming finalists in competitions. Winning tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships. They stand on the precipice of taking control of their lives, and they are owning it.
Let’s backtrack a little. How did they get here?
When they were six years old, or twelve years old—in elementary or middle school—they went to school with perhaps a little more nervousness than usual. On that day, these students took a test that placed them at the top percentile of their class and made them eligible for the district’s exalted gifted program. When they entered high school, they entered with a knowledge base in all the core subjects that was practically a grade higher than their general-ed counterparts. They slid easily into Honors and AP classes like they were born for them. They took 6, 7 AP classes a year and made straight A’s. On a day in October they went to school with perhaps a little more nervousness than usual to take another test, this one national. It’s called the PSAT. And they did well.
Their story is the story of a large and privileged class of teenagers around the nation. It’s the story of students who knew what hoops they had to jump through and jumped with a beautiful choreography that would make gymnastics Olympians proud. I used to believe that they earned those high scores, perfect grades, and joyful smiles because they were the hardest-working. That “merit” meant merit. Today, I wonder, even as much as I love these people, as much as I know that they are some of the smartest people I know, if we overestimate what testing can tell us about any given person’s qualifications—for the best schools, the best jobs, the best lives. I wonder if we have fallen too deeply in love with the idea of quantifying merit. Most importantly, I wonder what we can do to change education for the better through true partnerships between students and educators, and an entrepreneurial mindset that brings fresh ideas to the education reform discussion.
My hope is that you will walk away today with the idea that “merit” needs to be expanded beyond mere “smartness,” into the many areas of excellence that represent the diversity of a given population and the diversity of needs in an economy.
I began by talking about my friends who are National Merit scholars, and how they got there with a test. They’re not the only ones who take a lot of tests; ours is an age of relentless testing. By the time I graduate from high school I will have taken not only standardized state tests in various subjects but also 10 AP tests, 3 SATs, and 2 SAT subject tests. Others have done significantly more. In many districts, students take “adaptive assessments” to help “drive data-driven practices”—a mumbo-jumbo of words that the average student, not to mention community members or parents, doesn’t fully understand.
Testing sorts learners into a false binary of successes and failures, as if any test can truly be an accurate snapshot of someone as complex and colorful and beautiful as an individual who walks into your classroom. Because of testing culture, we have shifted focus from that which can be learned to that which can be trotted out and “performed” on a test. Unfortunately, this makes students automatically associate test-taking with learning. Overtime, many students come to rely on the “test tomorrow” as their sole motivation for learning, because our intrinsic motivation and natural desire to learn has been so eroded. Contrary to popular belief, events with high stakes (like testing) are not the best ways to motivate people—as the bestselling business writer Dan Pink has famously pointed out in many a speech (and his most recent book), we do better work when we are driving with our own passion, instead of going for a reward (or avoiding a loss, as it were). Pink gives the example of employees at companies like Google and FedEx who have used their company-allotted “free time” to come up with products significantly more innovative, or even profitable, than what they did normally. He calls this “non-commissioned work,” and says that it’s better than commissioned work. People are more productive when they enjoy their work, and the same is true for students. I think I speak for the majority of students when I say that bubbling in a Scantron is not my idea of fun.
At some point, the tests become dehumanizing—dehumanizing because they strip away that most basic of human characteristics, the one that drives babies to chew everything in sight and little kids to ask “Why” about everything, curiosity. When it comes to curiosity, I hit rock bottom in mid-October, the night before a hundred-point AP Biology test. Watching me glower tearfully at a page filled with facts and figures about photosynthesis, my dad said genially, “Do you know about the isotopes involved?” That was when I snapped.
“If it’s not on the test, I DON’T CARE!” I snarled.
I was never the girl in class who raised her hand and asked “Um…is this going to be on the test?” I was never that person who stayed up until 4 AM and had dates on Friday nights with my sexy…pile of flashcards. But one test had me completely unwound—and my parents (thankfully) never even pressured me to achieve all A’s.
Sometimes I wish they had. When I was filling out college apps every fiber of me wished that for four years I had had my very own Tiger parents. Parents who had shuttled me to SAT prep classes instead of just giving me the $5 in cash I needed to buy a used book from a friend. Parents who had told me that I needed to do math classes over the summer and enrichment classes online instead of parents who accepted that I was simply going to do Algebra II while some of my friends did AP Calc. Parents who had said “no more absences from school” instead of letting me jet around the world, to 15 countries and 27 states, speaking at conferences where I learned more in some weeks than I ever had in school. Or wait…did I really want those alternate-universe parents?
I’m glad that I had the parents I had. That I had parents who were brave enough to reject, or perhaps clueless enough not to know, what it takes in these days of high-stakes testing and cutthroat competition, to get into the most prestigious colleges. I’m glad that I had parents who never ordered me to stop reading the ridiculously gigantic piles of books I checked out from the library (most recently, I went on a spree and got 17 all at once) so that I could study for upcoming tests.
Well, my parents were brave, or clueless; but I’m not. Most school days provide me with the hardest fights of my life—veritable duels between my innate desire to learn out of curiosity, to read all the books I’ve checked out from the library, versus my desire to learn for someone else’s ranking, to prepare for tests coming up. The pressure of passing one test or another is frequently burning in the back of my mind like a slowly rising fever. If thinking about the “test tomorrow” were a disease on WebMD it would list as one of its hallmark symptoms tunnel vision—because testing creates a narrow focus that excludes everything that won’t help you. It takes focus and time away from discussion, from finishing books on a personal reading list, from independent learning.
And yet. And yet. Why are we nationally moving to yet more testing? Not only does it allow for politicians to point to greater “accountability,” it also benefits a large and powerful industry. PBS first pointed out the growth of the educational-industrial complex with its post-No Child Left Behind story on Frontline. It discussed the hundreds of millions of dollars being allotted by the federal government for standardized testing, and said, “Among the likely benefactors of the extra funds were the four companies that dominate the testing market -- three test publishers and one scoring firm. Those four companies are Harcourt Educational Measurement, CTB McGraw-Hill, Riverside Publishing, and NCS Pearson. According to an October 2001 report, Harcourt, CTB McGraw-Hill, and Riverside Publishing write 96 percent of the exams administered at the state level. NCS Pearson, meanwhile, is the leading scorer of standardized tests…testing is a burgeoning industry…while test sales in 1955 were $7 million (adjusted to 1998 dollars), that figure was $263 million in 1997, an increase of more than 3,000 percent.” Today, those numbers are even higher.
There’s something wrong with that. There’s something wrong with the fact that corporations have quietly woven themselves into the fabric of what, to many people, makes the tapestry of the modern education system: tests. In the review of Diane Ravitch’s book, [The Nation author] wrote, “The mission of public schools should not be to make money, she insists. Required to educate all citizens, public schools embody hard-won principles of equity and inclusion that are now endangered. The free market always favors those with more money and information, generating inequality. Ravitch says that purported free-market solutions have worked as distractions from the truly pressing problems of poverty and segregation by race and class, which impede learning and therefore should be the actual target of education and social reform.”
That we are distracted from the truly pressing problems of poverty and segregation by race and class is unsurprising considering our current interpretation of “merit.” Instead of truly rewarding hard work, more often than not we accidentally perpetuate long-held inequalities—along socioeconomic, geographic, and racial lines. Hunter College High School is an elite public secondary school in New York City that uses a test every year to select its entering class, those students who make the top percentile of test-takers. Some years back, the faculty chose Hudson, a student headed to Columbia University, to give the valedictorian address. After the standard expressions of gratitude and nostalgia, he said something shocking: “More than happiness, relief, fear, or sadness, I feel guilty. I feel guilty because I don’t deserve any of this. And neither do any of you. We received an outstanding education at no charge based solely on our performance on a test we took when we were eleven-year-olds, or four-year-olds. We received superior teachers and additional resources based on our status as ‘gifted,’ while kids who naturally needed those resources much more than us wallowed in the mire of a broken system. And now, we stand on the precipice of our lives, in control of our lives, based purely and simply on luck and circumstance. If you truly believe that the demographics of Hunter represent the distribution of intelligence in this city, then you must believe that the Upper West Side, Bayside, and Flushing are intrinsically more intelligent than the South Bronx, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Washington Heights, and I refuse to accept that. We are talking about eleven-year-olds…we are deciding children’s fates before they even had a chance. We are playing God, and we are losing. Kids are losing the opportunity to go to college or obtain a career, because no one taught them long division or colors. Hunter is perpetuating a system in which children, who contain unbridled and untapped intellect and creativity, are discarded like refuse. And we have the audacity to say they deserved it, because we’re smarter than them.”
We have the audacity to say we’re smarter than them.
I was surprised to learn that the word meritocracy first entered the popular lexicon because of a British member of Parliament, Michael Young, who wrote a book, The Rise of the Meritocracy, in 1958. It described a new British social system, the “meritocracy,” that would create the new elite by testing all children and then segregating them—putting them in the best schools with the greatest resources. It sounds familiar because we do it. We do it at schools in New York, we do it with entrance exams for gifted and talented programs in middle schools in my home district. In reading about Michael Young’s vision I was reminded of the Quest program, which is what my home district’s gifted program is called. Students stress out in elementary and middle school about getting into Quest. Once they’re in, they’re part of an extraordinarily insular community that remains a defining factor in their friendships even once the program ends. “Questies” tend to stick together, their friend groups solidified by having essentially spent eight years together taking the majority of their classes with the exact same people. It creates an unfortunate dichotomy in the minds of a few, where “gen ed” kids are “stupid” and only Questies are smart.
To go back to Michael Young’s book, The Rise of the Meritocracy, here’s the kicker: Michael Young didn’t set out to create an ideal. His book was supposed to be a dystopia. A dystopia.
He said in 2001 that “the book was a satire meant to be a warning.”
Clearly, we didn’t get that memo. Our society runs on the hubris of believing that we know the ins and outs of the science of quantifying “merit”—we test students with district-wide assessments, state tests and national tests and tests from private companies or non-profits like the CollegeBoard. APs, SATs, ACTs. If someone does well on the PSAT in eleventh grade they may become a National Merit scholar. But that is a misnomer because multiple-choice tests are desperately imperfect ways to determine merit. Here’s why: there are too many ways to game the system, and too many people who have everything to win if they do.
You win if you’re rich. You start off by going to a private school, or a public school in a better neighborhood. That school is richer because of better revenues from property taxes, so it can afford to hire more qualified teachers. Later on, you can get everything money can buy—brand spanking new books, SAT prep classes, tutors, and, if you need to, taking the test over and over and over again. A poor student might ask their counselor—a counselor who might be working with upwards of 500 students—for a fee waiver just once, out of embarrassment, lack of time, or inability to provide sometimes exhaustive evidence of a family’s financial situation (depending on the strictness of the counselor). Someone with comparatively infinite resources can pay as many times as they need until the 2200 or 2300 or 2400 is theirs. I know people who have taken it 4 times. 5 times. And in all honesty, I took it 3 times, because although a perfect score on critical reading was great, my lackluster 540/800 on math (“Well, at least it’s not an F percentage!” I said weakly to my parents afterwards) was not. So I took online precalculus over the summer. It was the cheapest course I could find but I still paid up a monthly fee that I know many students with parents struggling to find work or barely making ends meet could never afford. I scored a hundred points higher the next time I took the test. Richer kids even have better incentives to score higher—“Get a 2350 and we’ll get you a car,” said one of my friend’s parents.
You win if you’re a teacher, principal, or superintendent with no scruples, who can earn accolades for “raising test scores” by…well…raising test scores, albeit in unethical ways. I’m talking about the type of thing that happened in Georgia, a scandal so widespread that a school district superintendent ended up going to jail. In Georgia, teachers gathered en masse to change students’ answers on tests, huddled over piles and piles of bubble-in sheets with pencils and erasers at the ready. The superintendent was lauded for “improving urban schools,” a bright illusion created by cheating. The true scandal to me, though, is less that so many educators cheated, and more that tests were our sole measure of whether those schools were okay. A school can produce the most shiny and gleaming of A’s and B’s and be rotten at its core—stressed-out students who don’t care about learning for learning’s sake but only regurgitate, teachers and staff so stressed by the drive to produce high scores that they focus, narrowly, on tests only, a lack of a cohesive community that celebrates the kinds of merit that don’t get tested (in the arts, sciences, or entrepreneurship).
What’s more, these tests don’t really mean you’re smart or not. They test how well you can memorize material determined important by “standards” that are extraordinarily arbitrary. It used to be that being a meritorious scholar meant that you could rattle off key works of art of the Western world, knew Latin and Greek like the back of your hand and maybe French, Spanish, or German. Today being a meritorious scholar means high scores on Critical Reading, Writing, and Mathematics. But is the heart-wrenching decision between whether a passage’s tone is more “bellicose” or “indignant” really a reflection of if someone is smart? My gain of 100 points on the math section wasn’t because I grew smarter, it was because I had a lot of help. The 800 on reading that felt so easy to me was because my parents bought me a lot of books and I grew up hearing bigger words. How can you account for all that, make up for the lost time in one person’s life or the inequality of advantages in another, in trying to decide how smart someone is? To me, this is why we can’t fool ourselves into thinking that we can determine merit with a test score.
To emphasize the pervasive falsehood that we know what it means to be meritorious because of how someone does on a test that supposedly measures smartness is to drive a destructive attitude into our universities and our lives that “makes intelligence its highest virtue,” to quote the author Christopher Hayes. He goes on to say, quote, “Intelligence is a vitally necessary characteristic for those with powerful positions. But it isn’t just a celebration of smartness that characterizes the culture of meritocracy. It’s something more pernicious: a conviction that smartness is rankable and that the hierarchy of intelligence, like the hierarchy of wealth, never plateaus…While smartness is necessary, it is far from sufficient: wisdom, judgment, empathy and ethical rigor are all as important, even if those traits are far less valued. Indeed, extreme intelligence without these qualities can be extremely destructive. But empathy does not impress the same way smartness does. Smartness dazzles and mesmerizes.” End quote.
Many people will say that school is supposed to be preparation for society, and society hands working adults the business equivalents of Scantrons and SATs—competition and ranking systems at companies like JP Morgan, automatically firing the workers at the bottom 10%. Life, many say, is a rat race. Personally, I think that we build what we want our society to be in our schools. And I want a school that doesn’t hand me a rat race, because I want a society that values me as more than a class rank, a score, a percentile.
So—I’ve talked a lot about the problem. Now the question is, how do we fix it?
We need three things: one, the student perspective in education reform; two, greater independence for students in their learning; and three, more variety offered in high school when it comes to courses and tracks available so that every student can realize they have merit somewhere, regardless of how well they did on their SAT.
First, embracing the student perspective in education reform. The kinds of criticisms of testing culture, or limited ways of measuring “merit,” that we need aren’t going to come from politicians who like the “accountability” and seemingly easy answers that testing offers. The criticisms aren’t going to come from parents who don’t take part in the education reform discussion, including parents of kids most marginalized by high-stakes testing. It’s going to come, most authentically and most urgently, from students like me. That’s why I am a huge advocate of class-, school-, and district-level solicitation of student voice. When I spoke recently to an audience of 500 principals and superintendents at a Michigan school improvement conference, I had the opportunity afterwards to be on a panel that featured students from a local school. It was the first chance they’d ever had to get on a stage and speak honestly about their high school experience. It’s a chance that more students need to get. The #StuVoice movement, started by a University of Maryland student named Zak Malamed, is trying to bring a national stage to all students—the #StuVoice weekly Twitter discussion, every Monday, has become so large that #StuVoice has been a trending topic on Twitter. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan even joined one night, leading to one student tweeting, “the Secretary of Education is on this? That’s so dope” and Secretary Duncan responding, “Yes, it is pretty dope.”
Second, independence in learning. At Monument Mountain High School in Great Barrington, MA, a handful of teens in a room conducting something called “The Independent Project” are changing education. It all started in 2010 with a student named Sam Levin. He’d already led a student-run garden initiative (inspiring him to later launch a non-profit called Project Sprout), but he wanted to use the independence and dedication he’d learned in the garden on entirely new terrain: within the halls of his high school. The Independent Project, an innovative school-within-a-school program, was built around the ideas that students could be independent learners within a collaborative group of their peers. Instead of focusing on spoon-feeding a set curriculum to students, as is the case with regular high school subjects, the Independent Project divided the student’s time: half the day for a major independent endeavor (writing a novel, recording an album, learning to play piano), and half the day for inquiry-based learning in the natural and social sciences. In addition, the entire group would take on a collective project with social significance. The students addressed questions ranging from “Is there science behind old wives’ tales?” to “Why do we cry?” to “how do mice react to aromatherapy?” They read more books in eight weeks than most AP language arts classes read in a school year, and what’s more, they loved it.
Students came from across the academic spectrum: from straight-A students to special ed. They all piled into a spare room—the head coach’s office in the girls’ locker room—and started transforming it into a home base for learning. They painted the walls, and brought in shelves and books. It may have been within the walls of a school, but in many ways, it transcended the bubble our schools often create for us. As Matt Whalan, a student in the program, said, “How can you teach someone about the world when you’re isolating them from the world?” The Independent Project did the opposite. Today, the project has significant momentum, with almost 30,000 views of the YouTube documentary, press coverage in the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and TIME, and a website with the project’s story, whitepaper, and a map showing other schools where the Independent Project has been implemented. That’s a major part of the Project’s larger goal: scalability. Now that Sam Levin’s a student at the University of Oxford (his senior compatriots from that pilot year got into some equally prestigious schools—Yale should ring a bell), the continuation of the program has been assured by faculty and underclassmen at his high school, but he (and many others) want the project to spread further than the highlands of the Berkshires. As Williams College psychology professor Susan Engel said about the project, “I feel it is the only way to radically change our high school education in this country, to make kids feel in charge of their own education, to make them be not just the recipients, but the authors of their own educational experience. This has enormous potential. All we need to do is make it contagious.”
The power of the Independent Project is best summarized by the Antoine Saint-Exupery quote at the beginning of a fifteen-minute documentary about the project: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” I want this to be what education does. I want this to be what education is. Not the four years that prepare me for tests, but the four years that make me fall in love with learning—or, rather, never fall out of love with it in the first place.
The third thing we need is variety. I agree with Diane Ravitch, the former Secretary of Education who is now vehemently against the expansion of high-stakes testing, on the idea that public schools also have an obligation to produce a full, rounded and “liberal” education. That idea is clearly realized with pursuits like the Independent Project or schools like Bard College Early High School in New York, where one student, Sam, says, quote, “The day that the course catalogue comes out at my school is like Christmas morning. Almost as soon as the catalogues are put out, they disappear, and my friends and I run through the hall frantically circling all of the classes that we want to take. Instead of worrying about choosing between AP English and AP Government, we're excited to see that "Novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky" and a political science course called "Equality" are being offered…My high school, Bard High School Early College (BHSEC), offers a nontraditional alternative to high school in New York City…During the last two years of high school I was able to choose from a plethora of onsite college courses taught by college professors, many of whom have doctorate degrees in their field of study…BHSEC also emphasizes discussion rather than lecture as its method of teaching, and expects that students will develop critical thinking tools by challenging one another's ideas…BHSEC's tight financial situation raises an important question to think about in American education: how can we offer successful, innovative public education programs in a climate where financial resources are so limited? Finding a solution to this problem will require a significant shift away from investing in students' test scores and toward funding programs like BHSEC that challenge students to critically think. As a BHSEC student, discussing notions of Lockean consent with a professor who had just published a book on religious toleration in Israel was exponentially more valuable to me than learning how to answer a question on an AP or Regents exam. Learning how to build an argument by examining contradicting viewpoints meant more to me than learning how to construct a standard five-paragraph essay…All of the students, teachers and parents in my school also embrace a love for learning beyond exam scores and report cards, (I have frequently had conversations about Kafka with friends over peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at lunch)…”
Variety doesn’t necessarily just mean more, and better, academic courses. It also means that educational institutions house arts learning and trade learning, where students can be excellent at the sciences, dance, or become culinary geniuses. Des Moines, Iowa, has such a place, called Central Campus. It houses a magnet school for those who are academically-focused as well as career-focused options for those interested in everything from education to transportation. A recent cover story of TIME Magazine focused on a six-year high school that focused on getting students a tech-focused education, enabling them to then take guaranteed jobs and paid internships at IBM (a major sponsor of the school). The students were motivated by the connection to industry and the real-world context of their learning. The students were almost universally African-American and from low income brackets. However, the kind of career-focused education they were offered needs to be offered more often, and not just to minorities or kids from lower income brackets—there should be nothing stigmatizing or segregating about an education that focuses on real world components as much as it does on academics.
Student voice affecting decisions on how we change schools. Independence in learning. Variety in the courses and tracks offered to students. These may not seem like direct challenges to high-stakes tests—because they’re not. Instead, they challenge something far deeper, the underlying ideal that merit is a singular score; student voice, independence, and variety help to promote the idea that the strength of a society comes from the diversity of ways in which we define merit, and reward it. No economy of diverse individuals can flourish if we do not find merit in wider expressions of excellence beyond smartness in academics. As we learn to recognize and reward the value of a broader spectrum of human talents and skills, we in turn expand, advance and diversify our financial systems, the richness of our shared way of life, and the quality of our existence. It starts with us, and I believe we can do it.