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27 June 2013

Guest Blogger: "On merit."

As a first here on Soc'ing Out Loud, please welcome guest blogger, Stephanie McClure. This is an edited version of an essay she posted originally as a Facebook note.


My knowledge of the limits of standardized test scores and GPA as measures of merit comes from my reading of the research, which is quite consistent with my own experiences as an educator.  And that is, that they are noisy.  Very noisy. Do a little thought experiment with me, okay?  Think of all the classes you've had, in high school and college.  Now think of those classes where you got what you define as a "good grade."  In any of those "good grade" classes did you do the minimal amount possible, only reading when necessary, skipping class when you could, showing up just for exams, and memorizing to regurgitate, only to forget it all again as soon as the test/class was over?  Can you think of any?  I've got a few.  That college intro psych class, oy.  Pretty sure I showed up a sum total of 5 times the whole semester and I got an A. Okay, now think of all the classes you've had, in high school and college and make a list of those where you got what you define as a "bad grade."  In any of those "bad grade" classes, did you study a LOT, always go to class, learn a tremendous amount, and still remember to this day what you learned in there?  I've got a few of those too....  Now which of those two situations would you define as "behavior deserving of recognition and respect" (that would be the dictionary definition of merit)?  So, you know, a little noisy, right?

As to the question of standardized test scores.... I'll never forget the day I was talking about this in an intro class and a young woman raised her hand and explained, completely voluntarily, that at her elite, very expensive, private high school..., the SAT people came to their school and they took the test in sections, when they wanted, over a few days.  Now, I loved/continue to love this very bright, very thoughtful, very kind student. But I did think that day that I should perhaps offer to personally escort her safely back to her dorm room, as her classmates were absolutely staring DAGGERS at her after this little revelation.  Adorable. Standardized?  Really, though? Just as an example.

They do measure something, these measures of merit, but they are noisy.  Grain of salt, okay?  Not holy grail measures of innate worth and  value, so that if you score ten points higher you have ten points more worthiness for further education.  That's all I'm saying.  So why do we use them?  McDonaldization/bureaucratic rationality –efficient, predictable, calculable, and controlled.  It's inevitable, it's a part of human social organization, but it's not (or, better, therefore it's obviously not) perfect. I'd personally prefer to teach a room full of kids who score high on innate curiosity, something that doesn't necessarily correlate with high grades and test scores, but that's a whole other ball of wax.

And then, here's the thing.  [Abigail Fisher] didn't even measure up on your holy grail measures.  For real. And if you can't be bothered to know enough about the case to even know that, then you are an ideologue.  Someone who is so blindly committed to their own position that they cannot be swayed by new information, evidence, or something outside their own self-interest.  Which means I can't talk to you....

Stephanie McClure is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Georgia College, where she teaches and researches in the Sociology of Education; Race, Class, and Gender; and College Student Persistence and Retention.

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