Standardized Testing as Cultural/Social Engineering (2): Testing vs. Talent

Standardized Testing as Cultural/Social Engineering (2): Testing vs. Talent


The concept of talent shows us that testing is more about cultural/social engineering than it is about human potential development.

The previous post described how "Tiger Mothers" offer us a clue about how PISA and other standardized test scores really measure proficiency in cultural/social engineering to a huge extent. The insight was prompted by a listserv discussion based on my recent essay in the Washington Post about standardized testing. Retired University of Illinois economics professor Lanny Arvan's comment about how he "I could practice 4 hours a day from now till doomsday and still not make 18/20 free throws. Some of it is talent..." gave me a second insight: the concept of "talent" is a more effective way of fostering diverse achievement than the concept of testing.

Consider the usual can of worms that the concept of talent usually opens and which the "Tiger Mother" approach highlights. One perennial issue is, does everyone have the talent to do x, y, or z if only we applied the means for them to realize it? At first, I jokingly responded to Lanny that he would definitely be able to make 18/20 free throws routinely if only he'd had a Tiger Mother. Then I corrected myself and said he'd be terrible at them because he would never be allowed to practice them -- although I remain convinced that if free throw proficiency were on a Tiger Mother's approved list of activities, then free throw excellence would ensue. But free throw shooting is a relatively limited skill in scope. Amy Chua's daughter became good enough at piano to play at Carnegie Hall as a teenager. Does every teenager have that level of talent if only driven to realize it by Tiger Mothers or other strongly disciplined means? I am equally convinced that no amount of Tiger Mothering would turn every child into a Mozart, or (if permitted, of course) a Michael Jordan. So the perennial questions remain: how talented are each of us? How much could we truly accomplish if pushed to our limits? What are the boundaries between talent and accomplishment and the significance of those boundaries?

But the concept of talent also offers a convenient way to sidestep all that. Implicit (IMO) in Lanny's comment is the notion that it's not worth his bother to seek high levels of free throw shooting achievement. He doesn't have the "talent" for it, but he has the talent for many other things. At times, the notion of talent is destructively limiting, as when we hear people say that they haven't got any. But the notion of talent is also freeing in the sense that it encourages people to seek their own special talents and focus on developing them. (Jacob Tucker will never play in the NBA, but he has found success by developing his dunking talent to fruition.) So if they're not good at free throws, then they do something else. If they're not good at getting high grades at Ivy League schools, they become Senators and Presidents (see J. Kerry and G. Bush). If they're not good at graduating from Ivy League schools, they become extremely wealthy or famous (see B. Gates and M. Damon). And if they're not good at getting high scores on standardized tests, they likely have some other, more useful talents.

In other words, the concept of talent broadens the possible definitions of success. Unfortunately, the current standardized testing mania is problematic because it does the opposite: it excessively narrows the definition of educational attainment, and by extension success. Parents and children with more means and savvy know to take standardized test results with a grain of salt, as one measure among many. I know kids with iPhone apps who can almost instantly locate standardized test information for students at College X and quickly calculate the probabilities of their getting into said college based on a given set of SAT scores. The game has evolved to a high level. For millions of other students, however, standardized testing is no game, but rather a slog of drill and practice, scripted curriculum, lost opportunities for art, music, and recess -- all to serve a very narrow version of educational attainment and success.

The most affluent parents and students bypass most of this system and game the rest, while focusing on developing other talents; many of the most talented bolt at the first opportunity, and many of the less academically talented find that they have other skills which serve them much better in life. So IMO the concept of talent shows that the concept of testing is more about cultural/social engineering than it is about human potential development.

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