When Senior high school students receive their admissions letter, their merit is being evaluated. For all of these students, an admissions acceptance or non-acceptance is the most defining moment in their lives. All of their studying, exam taking, and school learning becomes validated or not. And most importantly, their self worth or sense of merit has been measured and judged. Sadly, this doesn’t work so well for the non-accepted.
Of course, humans are very good at measuring. It starts with the very important use of measuring the land, to find size, boundaries and make-up of the geological compounds. It continues with measurable things like the stock market, budgets, and businesses. And it all starts with measuring how much you are learning in schools. The ultimate tool of learning measurement, the SAT, is the last hurdle after quizzes, tests, and exams. And the SAT—the standardized achievement test—is itself on its way out as the sole determiner of merit.
The Oxford dictionary defines merit as, “the quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward. (for example, “composers of outstanding merit”).” So the idea that the SAT somehow leveled the playing field and helped to create a meritocracy has always seemed like a stretch to me. For one of many arguments, how could one test determine this meritocracy fairly? Well, Harvard promoted the SAT in the 1920s so that smart boys from Ohio could be identified, gain admission and sit next to the smart boys from New England. But isn’t it interesting that our colleges are still not true meritocracies because the SAT is not the only determiner of merit, and admissions is not truly transparent?
It turns out that the persistance, or more pointedly the obstinate continuance of class is replicated in our colleges, in our zip codes, and in our school pathways. There may be room for a few talented outsiders, but the class structure as defined by money is quite stable. Families ask themselves what is the most that they can afford in terms of housing and in so choosing where they live, that also choose the quality of their K-12 schools and ultimately the pathways for their children to go to college. Measuring merit has a lot more to do with measuring the net worth of our citizens than anyone is comfortable talking about.
And yet there is still the question of whether class alone will determine success in America or could school learning contribute to not just changing the class structure, but also contribute to and support a more robust solution to the future of our society? The increasing uncertainty in American culture is not just left over from the pandemic, but is also more accurately a fear of the future as our societal problems such as climate change, energy supply, poverty, AI and less-than-productive banks and companies begin to multiply. If asked for a solution I would say that a revolution in education is what is needed. This complete change in what we promote as the outcome of K-12 schooling would include measuring learning gain. If we could become schools of the future and truly help all students to learn, and most importantly accurately measure that process, we might indeed make a more successful society instead of a small set of successful citizens.