The standardized test as Tocquevillian device

Greg Weiner

This is a cliché by now, but the public schools where I live are producing test takers: pretty good ones, as far as the numbers show. At parent night at the beginning of the school year, we were introduced to a curricular program explicitly built around “assessments”—the new euphemism, I gather; maybe it intimidates less. A new study now purports to show that testing doesn’t enhance cognition. I’m not sure it was supposed to, but in any event, the critique is that teaching to the test fails to improve learning outcomes. I’m inclined—warning: this is anecdotal—to believe it does improve them, but toward the bottom, where massive investments are being made. What we may be losing in the bargain is what these tests don’t capture: excellence at the top. Welcome to Tocqueville’s democratic equality.

The Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative encourages all this; we can thank No Child Left Behind for it, too. Enormous resources are being invested to lift those at the bottom who are unprepared to learn, have difficulty taking tests, and so forth. This is unsurprising: what gets measured gets done, and what gets rewarded gets done faster. It is difficult to believe the effect is not positive: that learning to do better on math tests, for example, does not at some level teach some students to do better at math.

The problem is that there’s only so well bright kids can do on these exams, and the incentive to invest in them beyond that point vanishes. Since they max out at the ninety-ninth percentile, they are, as it were, fully capitalized businesses with limited growth potential. Raising an intelligent student’s score marginally yields far fewer rewards than improving a less capable student’s score substantially. The result—there are, for example, myriad programs for struggling students but none for gifted ones at my local schools, and parents around the country have been driven to the manifest absurdity of demanding IEPs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to obtain services for uniquely bright children—is less a race to the top than from the bottom.

Tocqueville nailed this as so many other things, noting democracy’s propensity to lift the lowest while flattening the elite:

[I]f you meet less brilliance [in a democracy] than within an aristocracy, you will find less misery; pleasures will be less extreme and well-being more general; knowledge not as great and ignorance more rare; sentiments less energetic and habits more mild; there you will notice more vices and fewer crimes.

The United States has been able to avoid Tocqueville’s tradeoff between the greatness of knowledge and the rarity of ignorance through—still generalizing here—ample resources and a rejection of envy. The first is now at risk from the steady conquest of discretionary spending by entitlement spending. It means we cannot invest everything we want at the bottom and still spend all we wish at the top; decisions have to be made and balances struck that no one wants to face but that grownups cannot avoid. As to the second—the rejection of envy—its survival amid conditions of scarcity is less clear. In either case, virtues—thrift, hard choices, and goodwill—are called for. Perhaps a standardized test for character would help.

Greg Weiner, who teaches political science at Assumption College on Worcester, Massachusetts, is a former political consultant and the author of Madison’s Metronome: The Constitution, Majority Rule and the Tempo of American Politics. He is currently working on a book on the political thought of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

A slightly different version of this piece appeared in the Online Library of Law and Liberty.

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