“Meritocracy” and the rise of standardized tests

– David Schoenbaum

The standardized testing craze — and backlash — brings to mind a forgotten masterpiece, 1958’s “The Rise of the Meritocracy.”

A work in progress since its debut in 2001, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is again due for congressional maintenance and repair. But this year’s outcome could well be a new model.

Time for the No. 2 pencils. Which of the following best describes NCLB?

a) What a new administration meant by “compassionate conservatism.”

b) Washington’s most ambitious experiment in public education since the GI Bill of 1944, or even the Morrill Act of 1862.

c) An object lesson, valid for both left and right, that all that’s needed to turn “test” into “testy” is a “y” — or “why.”

The answer, of course, is all of the above.

The Student Success Act, the follow-up generation of NCLB which the current House prefers, leaves much of the federal role behind. The Senate’s take on the situation, the Every Child Achieves Act, includes art and music, and allows for a fair degree of autonomy at the local level.

Either way, the rollout will be news. NCLB has been a beacon and an act of faith practically from conception. But it has also been an election year piñata.

So what else is new? Not much, actually. Innovations in their times, the Morrill Act and the GI Bill extended the role of Washington as they extended access to college. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, NCLB’s ancestor with its roots in President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, was the first major piece of legislation to declare quality K-12 education as a national responsibility. Months after 1964’s Democratic landslide, the bill cleared the House with a bipartisan vote, 263–153, and sailed through the Senate, 73–18. Not one to pass up a bit of theater, Johnson then signed it into law in the one-room schoolhouse where he had learned to read.

Subject to reauthorization at five-year intervals, the 2001 version began where its predecessor left off. But this time, it emerged rebranded with 10-figure budgetary carrots balanced by tough-love accountability sticks. The 107th Congress was as different from the 89th Congress as the War on Terror was different from the War on Poverty, but great expectations and good intentions extended across the decades. A House of 221 Republicans and 211 Democrats supported NCLB, 384–45. A senate split 50-50 along partisan lines passed it by a towering 91–8.

As in 1965, commitment reached all the way to the top. President Johnson had been a teacher himself. President George W. Bush was married to one. Photos of NCLB’s signing show Congressman John Boehner, then chairman of the House Education committee, with the late Senator Edward Kennedy in the obligatory scrum around the president’s desk. Both are beaming. This side of Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shaking hands on the White House lawn, it’s hard to think of another photo quite like it.

But just as in arms control, trust went with verify, and verify meant tests consensually acceptable to all interested parties — including parents, teachers, employers, legislators, and entire regions. By 2007, when NCLB again came due for overhaul, trust was showing signs of wear and verification had clearly become a challenge.

Resistance grew incrementally, but when it came it arrived with exclamation points. In 2014, 92 percent of third- to eighth-graders in Boiceville, a small town in Ulster County, New York, took the English test required by state law. A year later, a teacher-supported, parent-led coalition of the unwilling had reduced compliance to one in three. In a recent study by Harvard’s Equality of Opportunity Project, Ulster County was in the bottom fourth of the nation’s 2,478 U.S. counties when ranked for upward mobility.

The battle over testing was no less arduous in comfortably affluent Montgomery County, Maryland, which ranks in the top fourth nationally. On the eve of the 2015–16 school year, the Montgomery County school board already wants to phase out middle school final exams, with high school finals next for the chopping block. The idea, the board argues, is to free up time for more consequential exams like SAT, Advanced Placement, and International Baccalaureate — though it is suspected that their decision was colored by the district’s high failure rates on standardized math tests.

With Tea Party partisans and teachers’ unions shoulder-to-shoulder on one side, and business groups and the NAACP on the other, 42 states have already been allowed to opt out of at least some part of NCLB’s testing component.

“You could write a really good history … about our tendency to go from one extreme to the other,” Robert Pondiscio, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, told the New York Times in May. In the meantime, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the last survivor of the original Team Obama, continues to strive for the middle.

Michael Young coined the word “meritocracy,” a term he meant satirically. He would almost certainly find our current uncritical usage hilarious.

We can only wonder what doctoral candidates yet unborn will make of all this. But they might look to Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy for cues. First published in 1958, Young’s essay would go through eight paperback editions between 1961 and 1971, before vanishing unaccountably into the memory hole. Yet more than half a century later, it remains at least as much a dystopia for our times as George Orwell’s classic 1984, and a good deal more fun to read.

Like Orwell, Young even added to the language — “meritocracy” is his invention. It was meant to be satirical; a self-taught sociologist with an uncommon sense of humor, he would almost certainly find our current uncritical usage hilarious.

His choice of time and place has Orwellian resonances, too. With the year 2034 approaching, his narrator, identified only as “the author of this essay,” is desperate to figure out why a process that has so clearly served Britain’s national interest for nearly a century is apparently headed for a trainwreck, of all places, at St. Peter’s Field, Manchester.

The locale is not random. In 1819, St. Peter’s Field was the scene of a historic demonstration in a country where only the Two Percent qualified to vote. With as many as 60,000 to 80,000 protesters gathered to demand parliamentary reform, local authorities called in the military to break up the crowd. The casualties included at least 15 dead and somewhere between 400 and 700 injured. Ever since, the melee has been known as “Peterloo,” an ironic reference to the climactic Napoleonic battle four years earlier.

While it’s tempting to read 2034, the date of Young’s impending general strike, as 1984 plus 50 years, nothing in the text confirms intent. But the choice of place, like Orwell’s, is an imaginary postwar Britain, extrapolated from current history. A couple of preliminary nods acknowledge the coming of universal elementary education and a professional civil service in 1870–71. But the Education Act of 1944 is Young’s launching pad.

For the first time, any kid with the right stuff to pass “The Test” — an allegorical equivalent of Britain’s eleven-plus exam — was entitled to a place at a college prep high school. The idea was in part equal opportunity and social justice. But it was also a hard-won awareness that bright young minds, irrespective of class, were a national security asset, as vital to postwar competitiveness as to the current war effort. From there on, it was full STEM ahead and the best for the brightest.

Within a generation, the investment in teacher salaries and generous teacher-student ratios had paid off in economic innovation and a spike in gross national product. Businesses scouted out high IQs the way sports teams hunt for ace players. In a world of postwar superpowers, little Britain was again a contender.

More and better tests screened candidates and allocated winners. Estate and capital gains taxes leveled the playing field. When rising wages tempted working-class kids to drop out, the obvious solution was pay them more money to keep them in school.

When those who could afford it continued to send their kids to the iconic boarding schools, the answer was simple: make the real public schools — known in Britain as state schools — so attractive that the so-called public schools could only hope to catch up. “So quickly did some of them learn,” Young’s anonymous author reports, “that Eton … was the first school to install a cyclotron, and Christ’s Hospital the first to send a parcel of boys to the moon.” Was each new graduating class better than the last one? Another easy one: forget seniority and lower the retirement age.

There were also consolation prizes for the losers. Workers were now called technicians. Late bloomers could apply for retesting every five years. Their schools encouraged handicrafts, gymnastics, and sports as both skill- and morale-builders. Parents who didn’t make the cut could console themselves that their children or at least their grandchildren would. A Pioneer Corps recruited people who really liked collecting garbage and delivering Meals on Wheels.

But none of this came without a price, and of course there were serpents in the garden. Automation had sinister consequences for skilled, and even more so for unskilled, labor. New tests could already pick winners in utero, making retesting redundant. Four generations of upward mobility left fewer and fewer qualified children behind. The law of diminishing returns levelled off the progressive improvement of graduating classes.

Then came the problem of income distribution. It was true that the economy was a thumping success. It was only fair that the best — that is, those who do the heavy intellectual lifting — should get the most. But investment levels had to be maintained if Britain were to remain the economic superpower it had become. That didn’t leave much wiggle room for raising minimum wages.

Yet all of these problems ought to be manageable, the narrator insists. So why is this a crisis now? For Young, who was still protesting the treatment of immigrant hospital staff on his deathbed, this last part may have been the most fun to write.

The answer is a gang of three, respectively from left, middle, and right. On the face of it, they have little in common, but together they constitute a critical mass.

The left, a coalition of aging union secretaries and hippie graduates of the Oxbridge women’s colleges, insists that there is more to life than STEM and money, and that all jobs are created equal.

The middle is a women’s movement, upset in part by unequal benefits for equal (and more than equal) work but also by a eugenics campaign that encourages men with best-and-brightest IQs to consult the national eugenics registry before marrying their secretaries.

The right, made up of new, high-IQ conservatives, is eager to make itself hereditary, but also anxiously aware that mobility can be downward as well as upward. It has therefore re-created private elementary schools to buffer its kids against competition from their technician contemporaries, while supporting a flourishing black market in babies with promising genomes.

The scenario ends with the author whistling in the dark. We can expect a bumpy ride, he tells us, but the status is reassuringly quo, with minimal risk that the train will leave the rails. As it turns out, the assurance is a bit premature.

What can we learn from the story? Time again for the No. 2 pencils.

a) Test, but verify.

b) Leave no constituency behind.

c) Find a copy of Young’s little masterpiece in the nearest used book store, and send it to the candidate of your choice.

* * *

David Schoenbaum is the author of The Violin: A Social History of the World’s Most Versatile Instrument and a former scholar at the Wilson Center.

Cover image from Young’s original book jacket