Standardized tests are often vilified by parents and teachers who advocate “progressive” education. In this essay, I’m going to argue that this view is, in fact, a projection of their own tendencies to reduce human values to the most objective metrics (e.g. test scores, size of wallet, college degrees, professional titles, institutional affiliations, etc..) because they lack their own standards of values. In essence, through their criticism of standardized tests, they are saying, “Protect me from what I want.”
The common argument against standardized test is that it takes into account only a small sliver of what a person needs to succeed in life. The critics often bring up other qualities like leadership skills, confidence, social skills, emotional intelligence, grit, and creativity. For this discussion, let’s label them as “intangible skills” as opposed to “tangible skills” like math and verbal skills.
I think even these critics would have to agree that the existence of standardized tests by itself does not imply that their scores are the most important human quality. The problem is that our society has a tendency to view it that way, therefore the existence of it inevitably leads to our kids being judged disproportionately by how they do on tests. So, my question is why. Why does our society have this tendency?
My answer: Because the majority of people do not have their own standards of values. If they did, this tendency would not exist, and standardized tests would not be viewed so negatively.
If you don’t have your own standard of values, you would need external standards to navigate your life. Objectively measurable standards like Common Core and SAT become seductive. It’s because you love these objective standards so much that you come to hate them. It’s because you become dependent on external standards to navigate your life, that you feel trapped by them. It’s very much like how alcoholics feel about alcohol. Because you feel you cannot control this dependency that you need the society to control it for you. You want the government to ban standardized tests just as alcoholics would want alcohol banned.
Now, I’m not against such measures to control mass behavior. We live under a “social contract”; if the majority of people cannot control their addictions, and if the society as a whole would be better off, I think banning an addictive substance is a sensible solution, even if that means we have to compromise some of our civil liberties. For instance, I am very much in favor of banning smoking in public space. But the problem with standardized tests is that we are not even aware of the fact that what is driving the fight against standardized tests is our addiction to external standards. If we are to address this problem properly, we need to recognize this first. If we can set this aside as a separate problem, we would be able to see the benefits of standardized tests. They are highly useful in identifying students who need help. Furthermore, nationally standardized tests allow us to see which schools need more support.
Let’s now think about whether it makes sense for schools to be teaching the intangible skills. Leadership skills, confidence, social skills, emotional intelligence, grit, and creativity are highly subjective. There is no way to objectively measure them because we can’t even agree on their definitions. Below, I’m going to demonstrate just how subjective they are.
In the US, a stereotypical leader is an extroverted person who can speak eloquently in front of a large audience, but this is just one style of leadership. If an introverted person tried to imitate this style, he would fail. In fact, in Japan, a stereotypical leader is an introverted, reserved person. A man of few words is what most Japanese people conjure up when thinking of a leader. Leadership, therefore is not only personal but cultural. Everyone has a potential to be a leader but each person needs to find a style that works for them.
Also, the problem with emphasizing leadership skills is that we end up subordinating follower skills. The latter is just as important in effectively working with others. Some quiet people prefer to be followers but can become extraordinary leaders if the situation require them to step up to that plate. After all, each leader needs many followers to be a “leader.” If everyone wanted to be a leader, there wouldn’t be enough followers. Especially in a school environment, a leader is more likely to be selfish, narcissistic, loud, bossy, and arrogant. Superficial qualities like popularity, charm, and looks would be more significant factors in becoming a leader.
There are also more invisible types of leadership like intellectual leadership. Take Noam Chomsky for instance. He is not a leader of any government or political group, but his intellectual leadership in politics has influenced countless people. Compare him to Donald Trump. He managed to be in the most powerful leadership position in the world, but he has no intellectual leadership at all. He just parrots whatever he thinks will win him votes.
Now, let’s think from the perspective of the people who are evaluating candidates for high school or college admission. How would they do it? If they took into account, all these different aspects of leadership, they wouldn’t be able to evaluate anyone’s leadership skills. So, they have no choice but to evaluate based on their own subjective definitions.
The same problem applies to school teachers who are asked to teach leadership skills. As an adult, we can choose a leadership coach whose idea of leadership aligns with our own, but how should a public school teacher define “leadership”? For all we know, we might be encouraging our kids to be selfish, obnoxious, and arrogant in order to secure leadership roles that would look good on their college applications.
Let’s take another example: confidence. How do you teach confidence? The idea is almost laughably absurd. Confidence is what we perceive in others. Someone who is worried about his own confidence is obviously not confident. If you tell your child that she lacks confidence, how would that make her feel? Less confident. The more attention you draw to it, the worse it gets. It’s like thinking really hard about how you are walking; that very self-consciousness makes you walk funny.
Also, why assume kids (or even adults) need to be confident? Charles Bukowski said “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.” J. Krishnamurti said, “A confident man is a dead human being.”
I’ve seen some exceptionally confident students at my daughter’s school, but I have to question: Should someone of her age be projecting that much confidence? Is that a good thing? Maybe they are confident because they are clueless. The teachers’ attempt at boosting confidence may even have harmful consequences. Should such a thing be a standard practice at public schools?
How about grit? How do we teach it? The problem with teaching grit is that grit is pointless without its counterpart: the desired goal. Grit is necessary in life in order to achieve what we want because, on the road to our goal, we will encounter many challenges and struggles. In order to get what we want, we have to do lots of things we don’t want to. That’s where grit comes in. If we are to teach only the grit part, we need to subject our kids to things they don’t want to do. If they start enjoying that task, we need to switch to a different task they don’t like. What do they learn from this?
The answer to this question can be commonly observed in Japan because they literally practice this. Enjoying what they do is almost a sin in Japan. For the betterment of their society, they feel that each person should be sufficiently suffering. Otherwise, they see it as unfair. In Japan, a father as a role model is someone who hates his job but is willing to endure that pain for the sake of his family (and society). That is, when we teach our kids grit, they become really good at enduring pain for its own sake.
If we are to appropriately pair grit with the desired goal, we quickly realize that the amount of pain we are willing to endure is proportionate to how badly we want that goal. What’s more important than grit, therefore, is the amount of passion we have for our goals. If a student gives up a pursuit of his goal, there are two possible explanations: lack of grit or lack of passion. It makes more sense to address the lack of passion than to address the lack of grit, because an increase in passion will automatically increase his grit. The opposite does not happen. Ultimately it’s better for our kids to be more passionate than to be able to endure pain because the latter comes naturally with the former.
How about social skills and emotional intelligence? Many people advocate the idea of teaching social skills and emotional intelligence because they feel these skills are critical in becoming successful. But, each person’s definition of these skills is based on their assumptions about what “success” is. One definition I came across is “earn a college degree and have a full-time job by age 25.” This is a very narrow definition of “success.” Plenty of people have college degrees and full-time jobs but are utterly miserable in their lives. By making full use of their grit, they stay put in their jobs that make them feel miserable.
Furthermore, even the people who coined the term “emotional intelligence” (EQ) had to admit that beyond reaching the middle managment level, EQ declines as we go up the corporate ladder. Why? I think an analogy to flight crew can explain. For the captain of the aircraft, the reality outside is more important than crew and passengers’ emotions. If s/he were to put emotion above the reality, everyone’s lives would be at risk. If we were to draw a chart that measures the relative significance of the external realities versus emotion, I think we will get an inverted chart where CEOs would have the tallest column.
When I use the word “reality,” I’m not necessarily referring to objective or scientific reality. The fact that Donald Trump is our president is not objectively or scientifically great, but the fact that he is, is a reality we need to confront. So many of the realities CEOs must confront are of this nature.
Leaders must look outwardly to navigate their ships. Managers must look inwardly to keep their teams cohesive and productive. Middle managers require high EQs because their primary job is to shield their employees from the harsh realities outside. This explains why middle managers are generally not respected; because they pander to the weaker part of ourselves. We love middle managers with high EQs but we don’t respect them.
A part of us hates bosses like Steve Jobs who blatantly disregard our feelings. But, another part of us admires them because they push us to set aside our feelings for the sake of creating something greater. After all, the world outside does not care about our feelings.
The realities we confront in life are always at odds with our feelings. This is why we have a “defense mechanism.” The most important role of middle managers is to somehow make these realities more palatable for the employees so they stay cohesive and productive as a team. As we get older, we become more capable of confronting these realities. What we ultimately want for our kids is to be able to confront these realities better.
Whether you agree with my specific arguments or not, you must admit that these intangible skills are highly subjective. Teaching based on one point of view can have negative consequences from a different point of view. So, the question again is: Should a public school be teaching such a thing?
I think I’ve provided enough examples and arguments to demonstrate that these intangible skills are not teachable to children who are not consciously choosing to learn them without making many unreasonable assumptions. For these subjective human qualities, we need to develop our own individual standards, not simply accept the prevailing norm.
From this point of view, we can see the consistent symptom of those who criticize standardized tests. Because they do not have their own standards of values, they perpetually look to the external authorities to provide the standards for them. They don’t have their own standards of leadership, confidence, grit, social skills, or emotional intelligence, so it is perfectly acceptable or even desirable that schools impose universal standards, even though no such things exist for these intangible skills. They resent the fact that schools focus primarily on tangible skills like math and English. They want the schools to dictate everything.
Just because schools focus primaries on tangible skills, it does not mean that they assume they are more important. Like the wisdom of the serenity prayer, it makes sense for schools to focus on what they can control.
Suppose you are hosting an outdoor BBQ party this weekend. The weather is just as important as the quality of food to make it successful, but does that mean you should spend an equal amount of time and energy worrying about the weather? Obviously not. You cannot control weather even though it’s just as important. Instead of wasting your time and energy worrying about it, it makes more sense to use the same time and effort on making your food better.
Likewise, standardized tests are not telling us that the higher the score, the better the person. We are the one who is jumping to that conclusion and offending ourselves.
Back to my original question: Why does our society have a tendency to reduce students to test scores? Because most people do not have standards of their own. And, it’s the same people who criticize standardized tests. Ironically, they are creating the very problem they are complaining about.
My daughter applied to a progressive middle school and was rejected. What was hard for her was not the fact that she was rejected, but the fact that we had no clue why. She was rejected based on someone’s subjective interpretation of her essay and interview, not on any objective criteria like a test. It was as if someone told her, “We don’t like you.” I spoke to another parent whose child was rejected from the same school, and her child too struggled with accepting the rejection for the same reason.
In retrospect, it was a mistake to subject her to that experience. It just taught her to focus on things that she cannot control and to feel helpless from it, when in fact there are so many other aspects in life that she can control. For this reason, school admissions based purely on test scores (and other objectively measurable criteria) is better for kids. It helps them develop their own standards of values. They learn never to judge themselves against other people’s subjective standards. Objective standards do not belong to anyone. You choose which objective standards you want to measure yourself with. It is your choice, and you have full control over them.
For leadership, confidence, social skills, etc., you need to develop your own standards. Don’t allow yourself to be judged by others. That is in fact the only way to become good at these intangible skills, because there is no universal formula that work for everyone. You need to discover your own ways of being a leader, feeling confident, working well with others, and being creative.
Once our children develop their own standards of subjective values, they won’t feel devastated by rejections. They’ll simply say, “Fuck you. Who are you to tell me how well I can lead, how confident I am, how well I work with others, or how creative I am?”