The debate over meritocracy has been intensifying. Is it a good thing? A bad thing? Do we want it or don’t we?
The worldwide demand for talent and the accelerated use of standardized testing (and cognitive ability testing in particular) are driving this debate. Who gets to decide who has merit? And even more fundamentally, what is merit?
One thing is clear: The dispute is splitting the ranks of both the political left and the political right.
From a positive vantage point, meritocracy is “a political system in which economic goods and/or political power are vested in individual people on the basis of talent, effort and achievement.”
Viewed negatively, such a system discriminates against the less highly educated and those who perform less well on ability tests. At the same time, meritocracy privileges an arrogant, complacent and entrenched elite — largely white, increasingly Asian — with the money, resources and connections to jump to the head of the line.
The brutal caste system that meritocratic competition engenders fuels politically potent rage. That rage found expression in 2016 when Trump’s electoral success depended heavily on the millions of non-college whites infuriated by what they perceived as their relegation to second class status.
This sector of the Trump electorate remains caught in a squeeze. Even as these voters are excluded from the new meritocratic elites occupying the upper echelons of the socioeconomic order, they see themselves threatened by ascendant minorities and immigrants pushing up from below. It doesn’t help that for the most part this new professional and creative class is allied, politically at least, with the interests of minorities and immigrants.
Much resentment focuses on the way in which the meritocracy is selected, through the education process, and on the winnowing effect of extensive standardized assessments that seek to measure and validate cognitive skills.
Discontent with meritocratic selection processes is by no means limited to those on the right.
In academia, where there is an ongoing struggle over the very concept of cognitive ability, critics have won some battles.
The National Center for Fair & Open Testing lists 335 colleges that now “de-emphasize” applicant scores on the ACT and SAT test, although the drive to either abandon testing or to make it optional has been most successful in less selective regional colleges.
In June 2018, the anti-test forces achieved at least a partial victory when the University of Chicago announced that applicants were no longer required to submit SAT or ACT scores, although most elite colleges and universities continue to ask for them.
In K-12 schools, a parallel opt-out movement calls on parents to withdraw their children from some or all standardized testing which tracks student and teacher performance.
According to surveys conducted by the Hechinger Report, parents and educators in the opt-out movement are not just concerned about the stress of testing on children. They are “dissatisfied with corporate education reforms that rely on test-based accountability, and with the increased role of ‘edu-businesses’ and corporations in schools” and are skeptical of “the importance and usefulness of standardized tests.”
The opt-out movement accelerated after the Council of Greater City Schools reported in October 2015 that from kindergarten through grade 12, students undergo an average of “112 mandatory standardized tests” or 8 per year.
In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio and local education officials have been conducting an assault on the Specialized High School Admissions Test, which is used to determine admission to the city’s eight elite high schools, including Stuyvesant and Bronx Science.
De Blasio called the test a “roadblock to justice,” noting in 2018 that the prestigious high schools made “5,000 admissions offers to incoming ninth-graders” that year, but that “just 172 black students and 298 Latino students received offers. This happened in a city where two out of every three eighth-graders in our public schools are Latino or black.”
The story is different in the private sector, where meritocratic competition is intense and testing is flourishing.
Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, chief talent scientist at Manpower Group and professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University, wrote in the July-August 2015 issue of the Harvard Business Review that
Recent research shows that about 76 percent of organizations with more than 100 employees rely on assessment tools such as aptitude and personality tests for external hiring. That figure is expected to climb to 88 percent over the next few years. We’re not talking just about screening for junior recruits. The more senior the role, the more likely the employer is to use assessments to identify candidates with the right traits and abilities. Global estimatessuggest that tests are used for 72 percent of middle management positions and up to 80 percent of senior roles, compared with 59 percent of entry-level positions.
The use of psychometric testing is now extensive, and competitive economic pressures will effectively compel businesses into ever more testing.
The economic and educational hierarchies created by the use of such tests as the SAT, the ACT, the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Test, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery and other similar exams have split the left.
For example, one bastion of liberalism, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, along with 11 allied civil and human rights groups, opposes
anti-testing efforts springing up across the country that are discouraging students from taking standardized tests and subverting the validity of data about educational outcomes. Data obtained through some standardized tests are particularly important to the civil rights community because they are the only available, consistent, and objective source of data about disparities in educational outcomes.
The rights coalition argues that if the anti-testing movement proved successful, it “would sabotage important data and rob us of the right to know how our students are faring.”
Conversely, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a liberal advocacy group, describes its antagonistic position on testing:
We place special emphasis on eliminating the racial, class, gender, and cultural barriers to equal opportunity posed by standardized tests, and preventing their damage to the quality of education.” Among the group’s programs: “Uncovering the bias, misuses and coachability of the SAT, ACT and similar college entrance exams” and “Attacking the false notions that test scores equal merit.
A forthcoming book, “The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite,” written by Daniel Markovits, a law professor at Yale, is certain to add fuel to the debate among liberals. “Whatever its original purposes and early triumphs,” Markovits writes, “meritocracy now concentrates advantage and sustains toxic inequalities.”
As a result,
Merit itself has become a counterfeit virtue, a false idol. And meritocracy — formerly benevolent and just — has become what it was invented to combat. A mechanism for the concentration and dynastic transmission of wealth and privilege across generations. A caste order that breeds rancor and division.
Markovits’s blanket indictment is questionable but his case that there is an emerging “caste order” breeding discontent on the right is on target. He writes that Trump’s inaugural promise that “the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer” tapped into the deeply held grievances of Trump’s most loyal supporters and their eagerness to escape a state of subordination:
These groups thrill to Trumpism’s endeavor to replace the narrative of progress that dominates conventional American politics with one of rescue — to the prospect that Trump might “Make America Great Again.”
A CNN poll asked voters whether Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland did or did not “reflect your feelings.” 45 percent said it did; 48 percent said it did not. But, as Markovits notes, two- thirds of whites without a college degree reported that Trump’s “dark and angry speech” reflected their feelings about the country.
In an email, Eric Kaufmann, a professor of political science at the University of London and the author of the book “Whiteshift,” elaborated on the political ramifications of the debate over meritocracy: “The biggest impact of meritocracy has been in downgrading ascribed identities, which do not privilege cognitive ability, in favor of achieved ones, which do, among the majority group.” (Unlike achieved identity, ascribed identity is generally determined at birth and is something over which people have no or little control.)
Right-wing populism is a revolt against the attempt to attack ascribed identities among the majority as racist/xenophobic and to suppress/destroy them in favor of cosmopolitan/chosen identities.
Kaufmann suggested that this element of contemporary liberalism does not provoke resentment among minorities because their “identities are encouraged. Hence they are not revolting against the elite.”
The debate over merit and status is nothing if not complex. Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton, provided a nuanced reply to my queries. “We need to recognize that people are born with different talents,” Singer wrote:
Talented people may work hard to make the most of their abilities, but without the abilities that our society rewards, you won’t rise to the top, no matter how hard you work.
Because of this, Singer argued,
meritocracy on its own does not produce a society that gives equal consideration to everyone’s interests. Hence it’s an acceptable ideal only if combined with a pay scale that adequately rewards people who lack the talents required for the most highly paid jobs, but work hard at other, often even more essential jobs — from teachers, nurses, and police to cleaners and waste collectors.
Without adequate reward for all workers, Singer argued,
meritocracy is not an ideal, because it leaves those who, for no fault of their own, cannot do the work that is well-rewarded, in undeserved hardship.
One of the strongest cases in favor of ability testing was published by Jacobin, a magazine that by its own description “is a leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics and culture.”
It’s important to acknowledge that yes, SAT results reflect inequalities in race and social class. Black and Hispanic students and poor students do not perform as well on these tests as their white and affluent counterparts.
But, he continued, “this reflects a symptom of larger inequality, not a biased test.”
DeBoer acknowledged the argument that affluent parents can invest in special training and can hire coaches to raise their children’s scores. But he pointed to a major 2013 study that showed that the “effect of coaching on a 1600 point scale was about 20 points.”
Shifting to other, more “holistic assessments” of college applicants, particularly of extracurricular activities and special skills and hobbies, is likely to favor the rich even more than test results, DeBoer wrote:
The student who is captain of the sailing team, president of the robotics club, and who spent a summer building houses in the Global South will likely look more ‘holistically’ valuable than a poorer student who has not had the resources to do similar activities. Who is more likely to be a star violin player or to have completed a summer internship at a fancy magazine: a poor student or an affluent one? College essays are more easily improved through coaching than test scores, and teachers at expensive private schools likely feel more pressure to write effusive letters of recommendation than their peers in public schools.
Turning to high school grades instead of test results for college admission decisions poses similar problems, deBoer writes.
First, he notes, grade inflation has resulted in a huge increase in the number of applicants with perfect, 4.0, averages. More important, grade inflation is most prevalent at predominately white middle and upper-middle-class schools. DeBoer cites research showing that:
Whiter schools, more affluent schools, and private schools are all seeing far more grade inflation than higher minority, poorer, and public schools. In fact, public schools have seen little grade inflation; the problem is rampant in private schools, where grades are inflating at three times the rate of public.
The SAT and ACT, in deBoer’s view,
aren’t perfect. But much of the folk wisdom about them and their deficiencies is wrong, and though critics mean well, they actually risk deepening inequality by attacking these tests.
“Students who labor under racial and economic disadvantage have very few ways to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack,” deBoer writes in conclusion. “A stellar SAT score is potentially one of the most powerful. We should take care not to rob them of that tool in a misguided push for equality.”
The reality is that meritocratic testing is certain to be commonplace for the foreseeable future in corporate America and in specialized professions, although some schools and colleges may cut back.
CareerBuilder, which describes itself as “at the forefront of innovation when it comes to using data and technology to evolve the human capital management space,” estimated in a December 2017 study that “companies lost an average of $14,900 on every bad hire in the last year,” not to mention damage to a company’s reputation, to workplace morale and the loss of other qualified workers.
Insofar as testing reduces the number of bad hires, businesses in competitive marketplaces are motivated to support the use of ability assessments.
Chamorro-Premuzic, writing in the Harvard Business Review, makes the case that “valid tests help companies measure three critical elements of success on the job: competence, work ethic, and emotional intelligence” and that “research shows that tests for such traits are much better predictors of performance than are years of experience or education.”
Testing for “merit” is certain to remain a crucial element in education and training in such professions as medicine, the law, accounting and engineering. Patients and clients will insist on qualified surgeons, lawyers, CPAs and architects.
Robert H. Frank, the author of “Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy,” and a professor of economics at Cornell, offers an incisive analysis of the debate in an interviewwith Sean Illing of Vox.
“Privilege always matters, but it mattered more in previous eras. Most of the people who emerge as big winners today do tend to be talented and hard-working, so there’s at least a semblance of meritocracy,” Frank told Illing.
“Intelligence and drive and energy are critical in virtually every environment, including our own,” Frank added, suggesting that certain patterns of success and failure are consistent even when local circumstances vary.
“There’s a tendency to believe that the people who earn the really high incomes could have been anyone, given the right circumstances,” he continued, but “if you really look at the histories of the people who win big in most domains, you find that they tend not to be ordinary people and are often extraordinary.”
Still, the United States remains well short of a fully functional meritocracy, according to Frank. He cited a quite chilling recent study showing
that kids from lower-income families who scored in the top quartile on math tests in the eighth grade were less likely to graduate from college than students who scored in the bottom quartile in math but happened to be born into homes in which their parents were in the top third of income distribution. This is a very troubling statistic, and it says quite a lot about why and how people succeed in this country.
As a country we have moved past the idea that the basics of a decent life should be hoarded by an aristocracy, a hereditary class with a monopoly on wealth, power and property. Allocating resources on the basis of merit is arguably a better system, or at least, less unjust. Still, it is far from perfect.
One of the people who has thought most deeply about these issues is the philosopher John Rawls. In his 1971 book, “A Theory of Justice,” Rawls proposes that in considering how to order a just society, one must assume a “veil of ignorance” — a lack of information about one’s own future personal advantages and standing.
To this end, Rawls wrote that a social system that “permits the distribution of wealth and income to be determined by the natural distribution of abilities and talents” appears “defective,” adding that if “distributive shares are decided by the outcome of a natural lottery,” then “there is no more reason to permit the distribution of income and wealth to be settled by the distribution of natural assets than by historical and social fortune.”
If we think about cognitive ability testing as a form of lottery, in which the winners are those who possess a certain inherent capacity for processing and analyzing information, without reference to morally salient criteria like goodness, mercy, kindness or courage, we are embarking on a new kind of impoverishment.
No one has come up with a perfect solution yet — and no one will — but that doesn’t mean we should give up trying.