The Meaning and Measure of Merit: Testing for General Worth

Written by Jessica Lin, Columbia University

According to Nicholas Lemann’s The Big Test, tests are the lynchpin of American meritocracy. Its founders, Henry Chauncey and James Bryant Conant, had “created a system for serially ranking people by a supposed innate worth expressed in the scores made on standardized intelligence tests, on the basis of which their place in society — their prosperity and prestige — would be apportioned” (Lemann, 65). Throughout his book, Lemann repeatedly refutes the equation of educational performance and merit, first by showing how the former hinges on circumstantial luck, and then by asserting that the latter cannot be fully quantified. Not only does America fail to provide the equal education that would render educational testing a fair metric, but the tests themselves overvalue a quality that is both too narrow (discounting character and non-academic forms of intelligence) and too abstract (discounting job-specific skills). In short, Lemann argues that as much as educational performance may validate someone as a student to a certain extent, it is a less reliable measure of their value as a citizen or worker. The Big Test ultimately upends America’s meritocratic myth that filling in the right bubbles with a No. 2 pencil should be so dispositive in shaping our life outcomes.

In theory, meritocracy rewards the deserving and the driven with socioeconomic advancement. But before society can accurately measure merit by educational performance, or by any other metric, it must establish the basic precondition for meritocracy: equal opportunity. After all, Jefferson’s “natural aristocracy” is only natural insofar as it arises independent of accidents of birth. Under America’s education and testing regime, however, the idea of an equal playing field is more rhetoric than reality. While we like to think of one’s internal qualities and individual acts as the yardstick for merit, educational performance is heavily contingent upon external factors beyond one’s control. Lemann underscores the variety of ways in which group characteristics — socioeconomic, racial, and geographic — predict group performance. In fact, Lemann attributes Carl Brigham’s renunciation of the SAT, which he had pioneered, to the following realization:

“The test results as a whole were like a photograph of American culture, so faithfully did they reproduce the social order. Officers scored higher than enlisted men, the native-born scored higher than the foreign-born, less recent immigrants scored higher than more recent immigrants, and whites scored higher than Negroes” (Lemann, 30).

Descendants of the former Episcopacy, the social class whose domain comprised the Protestant Episcopal Church, boarding schools, and Ivy League colleges, benefit from elaborate prepping schemes and doctors notes that qualify them for untimed testing. Armed with education credentials, they progress on what Lemann terms the Mandarin path towards prestigious careers in law, academia, and other strongholds of the Episcopacy. That their success stems in part from the likes of Kaplan and Princeton Review, however, “made the SAT look like a series of parlor tricks and word games… a pitiless determiner of individual worldly success or failure” (Lemann, 114). At the same time, minorities mired in historically underfunded schools and low-income backgrounds, most notably blacks, test poorly as a group. This is because the SAT traditionally measured abilities, such as vocabulary skills, dependent on the quality of one’s education and environment. For Lemann, these racial disparities suffice to show that our education-driven meritocracy is rigged. He further notes that such influences as culture and class are especially determinative during one’s student years — the very period in which educational performance is measured and Americans are tested, sorted, and steered towards lifelong paths to prosperity, mediocrity, or poverty. 

Socioeconomic prosperity thus does not prove so much as produce one’s merit. In describing the Mandarinate, Lemann states that “the range of possible outcomes for those born into it is quite narrow and so is the size of the opening to people who are not born into it” (Lemann, 343). Those born into the white-collar, well-off educated elite tend to be the ones that test well, and testing well puts them on a privileged fast track to elite universities, which, in turn, prime them for white-collar, well-paid jobs. This pattern repeats itself over generations, reproducing structural inequities in social relations to a degree that renders academic success, in many cases, a more certain indicator of one’s circumstantial luck than of one’s innate abilities. As much as Chauncey and Conant liked to believe that tests shed scientific insight into “a biological train of the brain… there was no physical evidence for the truth of this belief” (Lemann, 33).

The aristocracy of birth that Chauncey and Conant so loathed was successfully supplanted by an aristocracy of intellect, which Lemann dismisses as an alternative description for the same elite. In shifting to scholastic aptitude as the basis of America’s hierarchical society, we merely replaced a determinant that is overtly discriminatory for one that is only covertly so. Indeed, the tests that deposed the Episcopacy and crowned the Mandarins merely redistributed opportunity, altering — rather than abolishing — the criterion for social discrimination. Lemann thus shows that as long as America’s meritocracy apportions educational opportunity unequally and unfairly, equating educational performance with merit will be unequal and unfair. 

Up to this point, Lemann has merely impeached the lack of equal education, not the value of educational testing itself as a measure of merit. Overlooking the fact that academic performance is background-sensitive, however, Lemann identifies another problem with this metric: “merit is various, not unidimensional” (Lemann, 345). Educational performance is just one dimension, and Chauncey himself admitted as much: “‘There are many kinds of intelligence; the ability revealed by this test is more properly called ‘scholastic aptitude.’ This means nothing more than the ability to do well in school or college’” (Lemann, 74). Lemann repeatedly echoes this notion that the SAT measures only a narrow slice of cognitive functioning. To Lemann, the fact that its single goal was to “predict a student’s grades six months into the future” rendered it in a faulty measure of inherent worth and an insidious determinant of life outcomes (Lemann, 84). 

He goes on to argue that success in life requires other forms of intelligence such as creativity and individuality — qualities that, in the context of college admissions, are better gauged through more subjective considerations. This includes evidence of distinctive extracurricular accomplishments, the depth and breadth of coursework, and the recommendations of those familiar with the students’ character and conduct. As laudable as one’s academic triumphs may be, Lemann is quick to say that they reflect little to nothing about one’s “wisdom, or originality, or humor, or tough-mindedness, or empathy, or common sense, or independence, or determination — let alone moral worth” (Lemann, 345).

Moral worth. It is the virtue that Lemann extols throughout the book, the virtue whose absence among the elites he bemoans. And in this sense, Lemann shares some common ground with the meritocrats whom he’s lightly besmirched. Morality, as manifested in public service and self-sacrifice, had been an ideological foundation of American meritocracy. Conant and Chauncey justified the elevation of an educated elite under the assumption that its members would be best positioned to serve society. In this sense, they viewed intelligence as a social asset with a distinctly public function. As Lemann observes, however, testing for merit simply replaced one entrenched elite with another, which continued to prize personal advancement and privileged progeny over public service (Lemann, 110). Evidently, the amorphous concept of “ good character,” while certainly meritorious, cannot be captured by anything remotely similar to an SAT score or GPA.  

This point comes to life through Lemann’s account of the quintessential Mandarin, Molly Munger, a corporate lawyer turned civil rights crusader. As Lemann tracks her developing social, moral, and political awareness, it becomes clear that it was neither secured nor foreshadowed by her academic brilliance and Harvard diploma. Instead, the admiration he displays for Molly’s leadership in the anti-Prop 209 campaign stems from an appreciation of her ability to override intuitive cognitive biases (informed by her friendships with Nina and Lisa), her self-reflective mindset (evidenced by her constant evaluation of her work as a mother, lawyer, and citizen), and her persistence through struggle (evinced in her individuality amid opposition from all fronts — Democratic, Republican, feminist). Educational performance is thus not only overly dependent on one’s childhood conditions, but it is also far too narrow a criterion by which to measure one’s general worth. 

Educational performance is just as divorced from seemingly meritocratic virtues as it is from job-specific skills. In other words, one’s suitability for a particular profession any better than it can one’s character. Educational performance is simultaneously too narrow and too abstract a factor to equate with merit. The result, according to Lemann, is that jobs are not necessarily given to those best equipped with the skills in demand, or those most passionate about the project at hand. He disparages America’s “general-purpose meritocratic elite” as one that pursues conventional success and fulfillment in the abstract, whose winning qualities are those of “unfocused ambition and risk aversion” (Lemann, 347). In this sense, Lemann seems to suggest that merit should be attributed to those who’ve proven to have mastered real-world skills and with real passion, rather than those who’ve studied to acquire a single abstract ability. 

That one’s merit is not confined to their educational performance is evident in Lemann’s system of meritocratic triage, consisting of Mandarins, Lifers, and Talents. While Mandarins prosper by performing well in school and on tests, Lemann suggests that their opposites — Talents who have no education credentials whatsoever — also embody America’s shiniest success stories. Lemann identifies the Talents as “uncredentialed but lively people who tried to get ahead in some disorganized entrepreneurial field like small business or entertainment” (Lemann, 188). The combination of business acumen, artistic creativity, individuality, and charisma that society attributes to its most celebrated entrepreneurs and performers are precisely the metrics of merit that educational performance cannot encompass. Moreover, it is these Talents’ focused ambition, their demonstrated ability to do particular things, that distinguishes them. 

True to his veneration of focused ambition, Lemann suggests that merit might be better captured by tests that assess one’s mastery of learned material. In the Afterword, he espouses a new vision of American meritocracy, one in which the mastery of a national curriculum would be the basis of all testing (Lemann, 350). Evidently, Lemann does not believe that educational performance bears no relation to merit; he is merely opposed to a test that measures neither innate ability nor course-specific knowledge. However, Lemann’s own cautionary tale suggests that any test would favor the traditionally privileged and extensively prepped. To that extent, educational performance can only ever constitute a single dimension within the multidimensional meaning of merit. 

         But perhaps Lemann is too quick to challenge the value of the SAT. If he deems specialized skills to be important elements of merit, it would behoove us to know whether the SAT predicts college grades received after freshman year. This is the period in which a student moves from general education requirements to the more specialized courses of their chosen major. Beyond that, we also need to determine whether high grades and test scores in the academic realm translate to superior job performance and economic productivity in the professional world. One might argue that academic success amid the myriad distractions of adolescence really does hinge on virtues that Lemann says education “can’t be counted on to find,” including independence and determination, among other traits that he enumerates (Lemann, 345). Moreover, it is unclear whether Lemann’s alternative of an achievement testing regime be any better at reconciling democracy and meritocracy in a land still fraught with unequal educational opportunity. Might it reproduce the same social inequities that have always existed, and moreover, in forcing schools to teach to a test, downgrade the very traits that Lemann eulogizes (e.g. diverse skills such as artistic creativity, socially favorable characteristics such as a cooperative spirit)? Finally, if high scorers acquire the best jobs, is it because universities prime students for professional success, making universities a privilege-producing machine? This underlying assumption of Lemann’s might be disputed if students who chose less selective colleges over more prestigious ones end up in similar jobs, with similar incomes. These questions do not appear in The Big Test, but its project should be informed by their answers.

To this day, both American institutions and the public itself continue to conflate educational performance with merit, from the emphasis that schools (especially state colleges) place on grades and scores, to the role of high SAT scores in status signaling. The Big Test is a potent reminder that the rise of a meritocracy founded on education was far from inevitable. In a nation that relishes its democratic ethos, the equation of scholastic aptitude and merit proceeded not from popular consensus, but from the political handiwork of select elites at the time of World War II. Throughout his book, Lemann exposes the twin pillars of America’s meritocratic fantasy: psychometrics and public service. Not only do standardized tests fail to measure innate intelligence adequately, but they also distribute educational opportunity and material rewards based on an overly narrow and abstract quality. Moreover, our meritocracy’s ideological premises that educated elites are inherently worthy (rather than coached to perfection) and will, at any rate, repay society through public service, are veritably false. Accordingly, Lemann seeks to redefine merit and redesign the American meritocracy into one that does not anoint a “natural aristocracy” or any aristocracy at all. We are left with the conclusion that there is only one inherent fact about humans: we all merit the opportunity to lead a good life.

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