The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘standardized tests’

Consuming Merit, Gatekeeping, and Reproducing Wealth

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 10, 2009

Harvard Graduation Caps

The op-ed excerpted below, America’s Best Colleges: Merit by the Numbers,” by Harvard Law School Professor Lani Guinier and Columbia Law Professor Susan Sturm, appeared in the August 5, 2009, edition of Forbes. It eloquently examines the role played and not played by universities in educating young people to promote the system-justifying illusion of merit.

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In its recent commencement issue, an Ivy League college newspaper displayed a snapshot of the Class of 2009 “by the numbers.” Although the students had by then been at the college for four years, all of the relevant “numbers” were based on a profile of the class at the time of enrollment. Prominently featured were the 157 children of alumni; the 9.7% of applicants who were admitted; and, last but not least, the median SAT math and verbal scores–740 and 750, respectively–of the class.

Amazingly, all the “merits” of the graduating seniors involved attributes that predated the students’ arrival on campus. Totally missing from the portrait was the “merit” that the Class of 2009 developed as a result of the four years they had spent at the school. Nor was any mention made of the contributions they were poised to make. Apparently, the defining qualities of merit–and what was most valued in the students–were the attributes they already had as incoming freshmen.

Selective colleges and universities, like this one, act more like consumers than producers of merit. They build their reputation based on the credentials of the people they admit rather than the contributions of the people they graduate. Trapped by a rankings culture that ties their reputation to admissions inputs, they also define themselves by whom they exclude. Schools that attract a lot of applicants, and then reject 92.3% of them, are held in the highest esteem.

But this process valorizes a uniform set of test-taking skills that produce results no better at predicting college performance than family wealth. In fact, Jesse Rothstein, a Princeton economist, found that the socio-economic status of a high school is a better predictor of what kind of grades its students will earn their first year in college than the individual SAT scores of its students. In effect, the testocracy reproduces privilege and stratifies the higher-education system by race and class. Individuals who perform well on high-stakes tests are awarded admission to college or law school as a prize for performance on a test that best predicts not aptitude, but parental income and education. This inequality effect of the SAT undermines a range of public values, from providing access to college independent of wealth and privilege to developing problem-solving capabilities.

The preoccupation with backwards-looking statistical criteria also severs the tie between admissions and mission. The testing regime deflects the college’s responsibility away from, for example, producing a diverse and dynamic learning environment that actually builds capacity among the students to become the leaders, thinkers and entrepreneurs of the Harvard Gatenext generation. Reputation based on numerical ranking assumes greater importance than reputation based on the development of innovative ideas and publicly spirited graduates. The primary function of admission becomes status and prestige enhancement for the institution itself and for those who enroll.

Beyond that, the pre-eminent role of high-stakes tests also negatively affects student engagement and learning. The standardized and time-limited nature of the SAT and the ACT fixate student attention on the mastery of test-taking techniques, rather than on developing qualities such as creativity, ability to collaborate, critical thinking and drive. It misleads, by reinforcing the view that ability is fixed when in fact intelligence is both malleable and incremental.

A static view of intelligence has been widely debunked; it undermines intellectual risk-taking. It is also self-fulfilling. According to social psychologist Carol Dweck, students who hold a “fixed” theory of intelligence expend enormous energy worrying about how smart they are–they become preoccupied with avoiding mistakes and are less likely to engage in the excitement of learning. In contrast, people who believe that one’s capacity to learn is “expandable” are more willing to challenge themselves.

An openness to learning from others is crucial in today’s complex environment. People who tackle the world’s problems with the benefit of different perspectives are less likely to get stuck in the same dead ends. As Scott Page, a professor of complex systems, has demonstrated, diverse groups have greater potential to generate effective and innovative solutions to tough problems.

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To read the entire column, including Guinier and Sturm’s discussion of solutions and alternatives to the “testocracy,” click here.

To review a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Firefighters and the Situation of “Merit”,” “Rich Brains, Poor Brains?,” “The Situation of ‘Genius’,” Wise Parents Don’t Have “Smart” Kids,” How Situational Self-Schemas Influence Disposition” (which includes a video of Carol Dweck), “The Perils of Being Smart,” “Stereotype Threat and Exit Exams,” The Situation of the Achievement Gap,” The Situation of Standardized Test Scores,” and “The Interior Situation of Intergenerational Poverty.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Distribution, Education, Illusions, Public Policy | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Firefighters and the Situation of “Merit”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 16, 2009

Firefighter - by Rossco (Image Focus Australia)The following excerpted op-ed, “Trial by Firefighters,” co-written by Harvard Law Professor Lani Guinier and Columbia Law Professor Susan Sturm, was published in the July 11, 2009, edition of The New York Times. They are also the co-authors of “Who’s Qualified: A New Democracy Forum on the Future of Affirmative Action” (Beacon Press, 2001).

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STANDING on the steps of the federal courthouse in New Haven, the lawyer Karen Torre reveled in her clients’ victory in a recent case before the Supreme Court. She anointed her clients — the white firefighters who scored well on a promotion test — “a symbol” for millions of Americans who are “tired of seeing individual achievement and merit take a back seat to race and ethnicity.”

But the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 decision last month — that New Haven should not have scrapped the test — perpetuates profound misconceptions about the capacity of paper-and-pencil tests to gauge a person’s potential on the job. Exams like the one the New Haven firefighters took are neither designed nor administered to identify the employees most qualified for promotion. And Ms. Torre’s identity-politics sloganeering diverts attention from what we need most: a clear-eyed reassessment of our blind faith in entrenched testing regimes.

New Haven used a multiple-choice test to measure its firefighters’ retention of information from national firefighting textbooks and study guides. Civil service tests like these do not identify people who are best suited for leadership positions. The most important skills of any fire department lieutenant or captain are steady command presence, sound judgment and the ability to make life-or-death decisions under pressure. In a city that is nearly 60 percent black and Latino, the ability to promote cross-racial harmony under stress is also crucial.

These skills are not well measured by tests that reward memorization and ask irrelevant questions like whether it is best to approach a particular emergency from uptown or downtown even when the city isn’t oriented that way. The Civil Service Board in New Haven declined to certify the test not only because of concerns about difference in scores between black and white firefighters but also because it failed to assess qualities essential for firefighting.

As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in her dissent, tests drawn from national textbooks often do not match a city’s local firefighting needs. Most American fire departments have abandoned such tests or limited the multiple-choice format to 30 percent or less of an applicant’s score. In New Haven, the test still accounted for 60 percent of the score. Compounding the problem, insignificant numerical score differences were used to rank the firefighter candidates.

What should a city do when its promotion test puts a majority of its population at a disadvantage and is also unlikely to predict essential job performance? People who excel on such a test may expect to be promoted. But testing should not be about allocating prizes to winners. No one has a proprietary right to a particular open job, even if that person worked hard preparing for a test.

When a city replaces a bad test, as New Haven wanted to do, the employees who did well on it do not lose their right to compete for promotions; they merely need to compete according to procedures that actually identify people who advance the mission of saving lives and property — and enhance the department’s reputation in the community for treating all citizens with respect.

Yet many Americans believe so strongly that tests are fair that they never question the outcomes, especially when those outcomes conform to stereotypes about people of color. Such preconceptions lead to the conclusion that blacks or Latinos who don’t do well must lack individual initiative or ability.

As the plaintiff in the New Haven case, Frank Ricci, declared, “If you work hard, you can succeed in America.” His lawyer went further: White officials who voted for a better assessment system must have been lowering “the professional standard of competence,” she said, “for the sake of identity politics.” Yet, in New Haven, no one was promoted instead of the white firefighters.

In fact, many fire departments with a history of discrimination, like New Haven’s, still stack the deck in favor of candidates who have relationships to people already in the fire department. Those without $500 for the study materials or a relative or friend from whom they might borrow the books were put at a disadvantage.

Moreover, it was the firefighters union — which sided with the white firefighters in the Supreme Court — that negotiated the contractual mandate giving disproportionate weight to the multiple-choice test. Those negotiations occurred two decades ago when the leadership of the department was virtually all white. Taking this into account, after five days of public hearings, Malcolm Webber, one of the white members of the New Haven Civil Service Board, said: “I’ve heard enough testimony here to give me great doubts about the test itself and the testing — some of the procedures. And I believe we can do better.”

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To read the entire op-ed, click here. For a collection of previous Situationist posts discussing how situation influences standardized test scores, click here.  For those discussing Supreme Court nominee, Judge Sotomayor, click here.

Posted in Distribution, Education, Ideology, Politics, Public Policy | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Stereotype Threat and Exit Exams

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 2, 2009

test-prep-booksLast month Mitchell Landsberg had an interesting article, titled “High school exit exam hinders female and non-white students, study says,” in the Los Angeles Times.  Here are some excerpts.

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California’s high school exit exam is keeping disproportionate numbers of girls and non-whites from graduating, even when they are just as capable as white boys, according to a study released [last week]. It also found that the exam, which became a graduation requirement in 2007, has “had no positive effect on student achievement.”

The study by researchers at Stanford University and UC Davis concluded that girls and non-whites were probably failing the exit exam more often than expected because of what is known as “stereotype threat,” a theory in social psychology that holds, essentially, that negative stereotypes can be self-fulfilling. In this case, researcher Sean Reardon said, girls and students of color may be tripped up by the expectation that they cannot do as well as white boys.

Reardon said there was no other apparent reason why girls and non-whites fail the exam more often than white boys, who are their equals in other, lower-stress academic assessments. Reardon, an associate professor of education at Stanford, urged the state Department of Education to consider either scrapping the exit exam . . . or looking at ways of intervening to help students perform optimally. Reardon said the exam is keeping as many as 22,500 students a year from graduating who would otherwise fulfill all their requirements.

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To read the entire piece, click here.  For some related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of the Achievement Gap” and the many links there to other posts about the effects of stereotype threat.

Posted in Education | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

 
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