Friday, October 2, 2009



I always get ideas when I study advertising in the New York subway. A couple weeks ago, I looked up and saw a big print ad from Kaplan, the standardized test-taking course publisher. It showed a young black man with glasses holding a book. Next to his face ran a slogan: "Prepare for an Upturn." Under the slogan appeared a few words about the tests for which Kaplan offered courses. It did not mention prices, although it did list contact information and addresses.

My mind roared into action as soon as I saw these images. I have long criticized standardized tests for their counterintuitive absurdity. They rarely measure knowledge or intelligence; if anything, they measure an applicant's ability to learn the "test-writers'" techniques and predict which multiple-choice answer they designated "correct." This ability to "read the test-writer's mind" includes numerous little tricks, such as looking out for the words "not," "unless," "but if" and "except." If those words appear in certain combinations, they automatically rule out certain answers. By ruling out certain answers, test-takers increase their chances to pick the correct one from those that remain. In sum, standardized tests do not test substantive knowledge from a liberal perspective. Rather, they are merely ornate little games with learnable little rules. And worst of all, these "ornate games" represent the single most important factor in determining whether a person attends a university.

Kaplan--along with all the other test-taking course publishers like The Princeton Review--knows all these things. It understands that students want to get into the best schools they can. They know that students want to make money, and the only way to make money is to get a good job. Only people who go to "good schools" get "good jobs," and the only way to get into a "good school" is to do well on standardized tests. Kaplan, then, offers a truly valuable service. On a micro level, they teach students how to read the test-takers' minds and predict the correct answer based on subtle hints in the text. But on a macro level, they open the doors to lifelong commercial success: Once you "ace" the test, you get the degree, get the job and make the money. For a terrified student, that is a miraculous potential reward.

At least, that is the theory. In truth, good schools and good grades do not necessarily translate into employability and money. That is why I found it perplexing--and even misleading--for Kaplan to say: "Prepare for an Upturn." Is that not an ambiguous thing to say? An upturn? In what? In score? In salary? In happiness? On the other hand, perhaps Kaplan meant all these things. After all, according to the "test-school-job-money-happiness" continuum that dominates conventional American notions about "success," doing well on standardized tests is the first step toward ultimate victory. These conventional notions assume that people want nothing more than a high-paying job to be happy. And if a person aces a standardized test, that increases his or her chances to get into a school, which in turn will lead him or her to a high-paying job. Kaplan knows that students think in these terms, so they play to it: If you get an upturn in standardized test scores, you get an upturn in life.

But there are not too many jobs left in 21st Century America. Even people who follow the "conventional path" from high standardized test scores to college and graduate school will not always find the "upturn" they expected in the end. Thousands of law school graduates, for instance, now struggle to find low-paying posts. College graduates face an even grimmer employment picture, even the ones who got 1600 on their SATs and waltzed into top schools. For those who did not fare as well, opportunities are even bleaker. Put simply, success on standardized tests does not translate into a "guaranteed upturn" in salary, employability or happiness. In fact, those who peg their hopes for happiness on the private job market are bound for disappointment. In times like these, the best pathway to employment lies in family connections, not school names or even test scores. A dumb nephew will always get a family job over a smarty-pants stranger who got high test scores. And Kaplan can't teach you to be the CEO's nephew.

That is why it is both sad and disingenuous for Kaplan to promise hopeful students to "expect an upturn" from acing standardized tests. It is sad because no test score or intellectual achievement ever guarantees private sector employment. Quite the contrary, private enterprise follows the money; people get jobs in private business when the company has available money, not because it respects a student's performance on a standardized test. It is disingenuous because it leads students to believe that test scores somehow entitle them to private sector employment. The mystique surrounding standardized tests is so pervasive that students think they are invincible as long as they breach a certain score threshold. This is a fool's belief.

Standardized test preparation companies like Kaplan perpetuate this fool's belief. They want students to lust after high scores. They want students to believe that they are "set for life" as long as they achieve a certain score on the test. By nursing that belief, Kaplan's "services" become ever more attractive: If high scores mean a better life, then who wouldn't lay down $1500 for a course that guarantees a high score? Like any savvy advertiser, Kaplan did not list course prices. Advertisers do not like to scare people away with prices. Instead, they want to trigger a burning desire to buy their products; they only disclose prices after the consumer has developed a conscious need to get the product. Kaplan faces an easy task in this regard. All students burningly seek an advantage in standardized test-taking because they believe higher scores mean a better life. Thus, they all too readily buy into Kaplan's rhetoric about "upturns" as long as they buy a Kaplan course. When they ultimately learn that Kaplan charges $2000 for a course on the LSAT, they are too intoxicated to resist paying it.

I did the same thing. I paid $1500 for an LSAT course in 2002 because I wanted to get a better score and increase my chances to get into a "good law school." I didn't take Kaplan, but test preparation companies all follow the same principles. I fell for the rhetoric. I thought the course would magically boost my score, and my score would propel me to Harvard or Columbia, then a $150,000-a-year job at a private law firm. It didn't happen; not even close. I did not even do that well on the test. I am just not very good at standardized tests. But I am proud of that. I resist mimicking idiotic test-writers and learning their picayune little mind tricks. That doomed me on the LSAT, but so what? What good would a higher score have done in the end? We're still in a depression, and even the greatest test-takers face the same economic adversity as the most blundering multiple-choice neophytes.

I have deep objections about America's fixation on standardized tests. It is impossible to objectively measure an individual's intellectual depth, creativity, intelligence and "value" with a purposely deceptive, trick-laden, multiple-choice amalgamation. Yet millions believe that standardized tests authoritatively measure all these things. I think this reveals a fundamental flaw in most Americans' approach to knowledge in general. Standardized tests are supposed to measure intelligence and intellectual depth. Yet neither intelligence nor intellectual depth can prepare a test taker to face the myriad tricks and traps in any standardized test. Doing well on a standardized test about biology, for instance, requires learning about the particular standardized test about biology, not about biology itself. And because standardized tests act as "gateways" to universities and careers, they are essentially instrumental. In essence, then, the American obsession with standardized tests renders American approaches to knowledge "instrumental," too: By spending all your time learning how to take tests, knowledge becomes just another forgettable tool to get a job. Knowledge in itself is nothing. Only knowledge that "gets you in somewhere" is worth having.

I believe the opposite. I think that knowledge offers its own rewards, no matter whether it helps you do well on a standardized test. People tell me that this is a "humanist" or "Renaissance" approach to knowledge. In other words, it is "old-fashioned" and "impracticable." People tell me that I need to "put my knowledge to use" so I can "make money" and "get a better job." But that's not the reason I learn things. I learn things to enrich my own mind, not to boost my resume or impress some interviewer. This might be old-fashioned and even "unreasonable," but it's what I do.

I do not like instrumental learning. Kaplan thrives on it. I live in a country in which students ask: "What do I need to know for the test?" rather than: "I want to learn more about this subject because it interests me." That illustrates the difference between instrumental learning and learning for its own sake. True, instrumental learners might score highly on standardized tests. But so what? They can pick all the correct answers in the world, but that will not magically create a private sector job for them. How ironic is that?

No comments: