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Meritocracy, “Testocracy”, and Democracy

January 8, 2015

Earlier this week, Richard Kahlenberg wrote a post for The Nation with the provocative title “Standardized Tests are Weakening Our Democracy”. Using a review of The Tyranny of the Meritocracy, Lani Guinier’s recent book, as the jumping off point, Kahlenberg describes how schools— and especially colleges— use standardized tests as a proxy for “merit”. He then offers Guinier’s definition of “merit” and shows how that definition has no relationship to test scores.

Guinier does not want to destroy the concept of merit, but to “redefine” it to go beyond “student performance on standardized tests.” She suggests we shift “from honoring testocratic merit to honoring democratic merit.”

“Democratic merit,” Guinier explains, goes far beyond examining test scores… Today, she says, our society should value people who combine two sets of attributes: (1) knowing how to solve problems, which requires not just cognitive skills but also the ability to collaborate with others, and to think creatively; and (2) a “commitment to building a better society for more people” rather than just pursuing one’s own selfish ends.

Guinier’s book deals with the difficulties in achieving truly equal access to colleges when test scores are given a high priority in the admissions process, asserting that the current link between test scores and affirmative action is flawed:

Affirmative action tends to “simply mirror the values of the current view of meritocracy,” Guinier notes. Colleges tend to admit “the children of upper-middle[-]class parents of color who have been sent to fine prep schools just like the upper-middle[-]class white students.” Universities often seek what Guinier calls “cosmetic diversity” of wealthy black students, many of whom are recent immigrants. One study, she notes, finds that “more than 90 percent of parents of Harvard’s African students had advanced degrees.”

Moving away from “testocratic” merit will be a difficult task. Why? Because there is a high correlation between affluence, education, and high test scores and those who achieved high test scores in the past believe their subsequent success in school and life was a result of “merit” based on those test scores and anything that is substituted for “objective” test scores will be “subjective” and therefore difficult to measure. If standardized tests are not used define “merit” what could take their place? Guinier has a solution that has a track record:

Guinier suggests that universities, rather than considering race as a way of papering over deeper inequalities, should turn to a more transformative model of admissions, which is illustrated by the Posse Foundation. Founded in 1989 by Debbie Bial, Posse seeks to identify students of all colors from disadvantaged neighborhoods who embody democratic merit. Through intensive interviews and group projects, Posse picks students who show grit, who demonstrate that they can collaborate with others, think creatively and show leadership. Many of these students end up involved in public service. The former admissions dean of Middlebury College told Guinier he strongly supports Posse. “What’s more important,“ he asked her: “someone with all As or someone with some Bs who goes out and makes a difference in the world?”

As long as applicants (and/or their parents and/or admissions officials) believe standardized tests have more credence than “grit”, the ability to collaborate, creative thinking, and leadership we will see A students with high SATs displacing B students who have shown they can go out and make a difference in the world.

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