Atlantic: The Left’s dismantling of meritocracy hurts Democrats

July 1, 2021 • 11:30 am

This article, from a recent issue of The Atlantic, highlights two “progressive” issues that are hurting Democrats: the “defund the police” campaign, which has gone nowhere (thank goodness, though we do need a rethink of policing), and—the real subject of the piece—the elimination of standardized testing requirements and “advanced placement” classes as admission criteria for secondary schools and colleges. In contrast with police defunding, says author David Frum, this is a serious issue that is hurting the Left. The elimination of testing and advanced classes are, of course, part of the dismantling of the meritocracy that “progressives” deem necessary to achieve equity (proportional representation of groups) in schools as well as in jobs.

Click on the screenshot to read:

Here are Frum’s contentions:

But as unpopular as “Defund the police” is, local progressive activists have found a cause even more anathema—and are pushing it with even greater vigor. Eighty-three percent of American adults believe that testing is appropriate to determine whether students may enroll in special or honors programs, according to one of the country’s longest-running continuous polls of attitudes toward education.

Yet across the U.S., blue-state educational authorities have turned hostile to academic testing in almost all of its forms. In recent months, honors programs have been eliminated in Montgomery County, Maryland, and Seattle. On Long Island, New York, and in Pennsylvania and Virginia, curricula are being rethought to eliminate tracking that separates more- and less-adept student populations. New York City’s specialist public high schools are under fierce pressure to revise or eliminate academic standards for admission. Boston’s exam schools will apply different admissions standards in different zip codes. San Francisco’s famous Lowell High School has switched from academically selective admission to a lottery system. At least a thousand colleges and universities have halted use of the SAT, either permanently or as an experiment. But the experiments are rapidly hardening into permanent changes, notably at the University of California, but also in Washington State and Colorado. SAT subject tests have been junked altogether.

Frum then adds that these programs face more resistance when pollsters stipulate that the programs would result in the admission of fewer black and Hispanic students, but then adds that the enthusiasm for testing returns when respondents are told that everyone, including students of color and the poor, would get free access to test-preparation courses.

This presumes that test preparation works, and it does a bit (especially when the “prep” consists of actually taking the test several times, which allows you to get an idea of what the questions are like), but it doesn’t do nearly enough to reduce the disparity of scores between Asian and white students on one hand and black and Hispanic students on the other (see here and here).

A quote from the first source, Slate:

For many decades, the testing industry denied that it was possible to raise a student’s scores to a significant degree. If coaching worked, wrote Nicholas Lemann in his essential history of testing from 1999, then “it made the SAT look like a series of parlor tricks and word games, rather than a gleaming instrument of scientific measurement.” Yet it’s clear that even the most elementary form of test prep—simply retaking the exam, multiple times—seems to have some benefit. The best independent research suggests that formal coaching can further boost a student’s score, but only by a little bit.

A quote from the second source, the New York Times, writing about the ridiculously low number of black students  admitted to the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in New York City, which has an entrance exam. (Only 8 black students were admitted out of 4,262, while more than half of those admitted were Asians.)

Ronald S. Lauder, the billionaire cosmetics heir, launched a multimillion dollar lobbying and advertising campaign in 2019 to defeat the mayor’s push to eliminate the specialized school exam. As part of that effort, Mr. Lauder and his partner in the initiative, former Citigroup chairman Richard D. Parsons, promised to shower test preparation companies with money to better prepare Black and Latino students for the exam.

Despite over $750,000 spent on test prep over the last two years, most of which was funneled to existing nonprofit programs across the city, their plan has not made a dent in the numbers.

No, test prep is not a good way to even out inequities, and certainly not a way to assure equal opportunity. While eliminating all standardized tests will create more equity by reducing the disparity among groups in test scores, it also deprives schools of valuable information about a student’s potential and makes it harder to identify outstanding minority students.

What to do? The disparity we’re seeing might be the end result of decades of bigotry against blacks that has created, as John McWhorter suggests, a culture that values street smarts more than academic achievement, and has also led to a surfeit of families with single-mother parents. To remedy this takes a lot more than test preparation. It takes substantial investment in providing families with stability, improving teaching, and tailoring instruction to individual students. And it takes a huge social investment in effacing differences in opportunities available to minority students.

h/t: Carl

34 thoughts on “Atlantic: The Left’s dismantling of meritocracy hurts Democrats

  1. Question for the house:

    Do any of you know of examples where the effects of “wokeness” have led to an increase in academic rigor? Actually, not just in school, but in any field of endeavor.

    Because it seems to me that the bottom line of “wokeness” vis a vis performance is to be a total attack on the notion of competence. And I see this in everything from classical music, to law, to science, to math and to…..ballet. Yes, ballet.


    1. Not a direct answer to your question but related to attacks on competence. In other posts on similar topics at this site, Jerry and commenters have often emphasized that the limit of this erosion of standards will be in medicine and engineering.

      This article in the NYT today

      sympathetically portrays US students who lack the qualifications to get into US medical schools, and instead opt to attend expensive for-profit medical schools in the Caribbean, but then can’t get accepted to medical residencies back in the US.

      The subtext of the article (and many of the reader comments) is that most of these students are from racialized groups, and that the low quality of the education they receive at for-profit medical schools maybe should not be an obstacle to admitting those students back into the US medical training system. The reason is not spelled out but is implied to be that increased diversity among MDs is an important goal.

      Fun fact: my browser does not recognize “racialized” as a word, and wants to autocorrect to “radicalized”. Presumably the “folx” at Apple and Google are working on that for the next software update. It would be fun to read about the incorporation of woke neologisms and spellings into software applications – any suggestions?

      1. Here is how I have seen wokeness get into ballet.

        Male dancers are now donning pointe shoes. They are not doing this for comic effect, such as Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. These are serious male dancers.

        Pointe shoes help a dancer appear to defy gravity and give a ballet dancer lightness and a reach for the heavens.
        The focus of ballet is not the ground, like in modern dance with bare feet, but the weightlessness in ballet. Seeing a muscular male dancer with hairy legs in pointe shoes does not work. They look too grounded, not lithe.

        Google male ballet dancers in pointe shoes. Lots of male dancers in pointe shoes in good ballet companies come up. Pacific Northwest Ballet, which is a good company, Siberian Swan, a Russian company and many companies are just starting to experiment.


  2. Not commenting specifically on Frum’s piece, but as a former local school board member, I do know that ‘gifted’ programs and AP classes are commonly cut when school budgets are voted down as they are not mandatory (at least in my state), so as to be able to maintain the basic requirements.

    1. I believe that, at least in the news reports, these classes are not being cut because of a lack of money. They always give other reasons. And that, of course, doesn’t explain the bans on standardized testing.

  3. There is always a lot of focus on top tier schools and universities. What will the impact of ending standardized tests to to the lower tier state universities or public schools? Will it diffuse talent throughout the primary and secondary schools, or instead will it increase the level of segregation with middle class families (of any race) staying away from certain districts and undoing some of the recent demographic shifts with people returning to the urban areas?
    Will we see a decline in quality at the top tier level? Will see state university enrollment climb, funneling more money into their coffers as they continue to morph into consumer-based colleges existing only to take your money, never challenge or educate you, and give you a worthless degree and equally worthless credentials? Guess we’ll find out. I haven’t read the book by Daniel Markovitz, The Meritocracy Trap, but I’ll bet some here have done. Is it at all germane to the conversation?

    As for police, we have some violent police, sure, could it have anything to do with that being a reflection of our violent, crime and gun-obsessed nation? As a wise rabbit said, “Mmmm, could be!”

  4. Not sure where to start with this without just blurting out things.

    The phenomenon of youth murdering their peers – directly or as collateral murder – and with guns – seems relevant. The fewer children make it through youth to the age to enter higher education, the fewer of those youth will be counted in rosters.

    Of course I am avoiding saying “black” youth. But I am not disposed to examine the available data.

  5. It’s not even gifted kids, I’d put hard-working kids in that column too. It’s my opinion looking at my kid’s elementary school curriculum through the years that pretty much any normally intelligent kid could learn material a year or so above US grade levels. Why that isn’t the standard is because it takes some individualized attention and maybe some minimal (15-30 mins/day) homework. A kid who is motivated to do well can do that on their own. A kid whose parents are well-off enough to have the spare time to give them that individual extra push can also do it.

    I know they’re not *required*, but they’re a powerful social mobility tool for poorer families. Fingers crossed schools weather the woke storm and continue to offer tough academic opportunities for all comers who can qualify.

  6. I graduated from one of NYC’s specialized high schools in the 1960s. Back then the students were overwhelming Jewish; now it is overwhelming Asian. I received presumably a top-flight education (without having to go to a private school), but it came at a great psychic cost. This was because the competition for good grades was overwhelming. I was competing against some true geniuses. I frequently got physically sick worrying about tests, particularly finals. So, while the education was great, my overall experience was not so much. I am not sure, but my guess is that things have not particularly changed in this regard.

    This is why the proposed plan to eliminate entrance exams would be an unmitigated disaster for students not particularly prepared and probably for those students that would have been admitted by the exam. One of two things would happen if this proposal were adopted. The first is that the curriculum would be watered down to a degree that all students would be denied a first-class education. The other possibility is that if the high-standard curriculum were retained those students that would not been admitted if the exams were still in effect will be psychically crushed. They would not understand why they are not keeping up with the other students. Community activists will cry racism. The city would be roiled by yet another incident of division.

    This call to make the specialized high schools no longer special is but another example of politicians and activists agitating for quick fixes that are doomed to failure. They choose to ignore that the problems of minority education can only be solved over the long term, at least a decade, maybe more. We all know what it would take to make real change: a massive infusion of funds into minority schools on the elementary level as well as cultural change in minority communities. If such actions had been taken decades ago, today our society would be so much better off. But, it didn’t happen and is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Society will continue to unravel.

  7. The woke program to deal with differential academic performance of population sub-groups is to dismantle the testing procedures which reveal it. A comparable response to climate change would be to eliminate thermometers.

    Frum’s Atlantic article underlines the fact that this campaign against ability testing is unpopular with the general public, despite being so fashionable with “progressive” educrats. The more the educrats impose it on public school systems, the more the general public will reject the attitudes behind it and those which seem associated with it. Frum’s article begins by noting the NYC primary victory of Eric Adams, a former cop and an explicit opponent of the “progressive” mantra of defunding the police.

    1. “The more the educrats impose it on public school systems, the more the general public will reject the attitudes behind it and those which seem associated with it.”

      I was with you until that ^^^ part – who is who here, what are their interests, and an example of an attitude that is rejected?

      1. The who is obviously the “woke” performance Leftists. The attitudes behind the new woke educrat fashion (against which the public will react) are those involving social engineering; unfortunately, the public may react against relatively enlightened forms of social engineering as well as the nitwit campaign against ability testing. Those “associated with” the postures of woke educrats might mean Democratic candidates of any kind, unless the latter dissociate themselves explicitly and strongly from woke verbiage—as, it seems, Eric Adams was able to do in NYC. Not enough Democrats have done so. However, on a somewhat comparable set of issues, the Danish Social Democrats under Mette Frederiksen have managed to get themselves un-woked, so maybe USian liberals can too.

  8. The denigration of competence and expertise has been happening on the right for a long time. Their belief that opinions are equal has been happening for decades. Expertise is fake. Just look at their attitude toward climate change.

    Trump personifies that. His followers do, too.

    When I was in elementary school, the idea that anyone should stand out was anathema. Our grading system was satisfactory/unsatisfactory. There was a pervasive belief that if anyone excelled s/he “might get a swelled head”.

    So now, all these years later, the left is getting in on the action. The motives might be different, but the outcomes will be the same.

    America hates excellence, competence, and success. That hatred comes from all directions. Those of us who live in this society but don’t share that attitude are in the minority.

    Sign me “elitist and proud of it”.


    1. Yes, this is very true on the right.
      Exhibit A: Sarah Palin.
      Exhibit B: Voldemort (POTUS 45)
      Exhibit C: Many, many GOP members of congress to choose from (Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann spring to mind immediately)

      It is hate of competence and professionals. There’s probably a healthy dose of it in the anti-vaxx movement (those science people don’t know what they’re talking about).

      Also: Garage logic (if that’s traveled beyond the US Midwest).

      And: The US has always had a strong anti-elite, populist strain in in.

      1. Exhibit D: When Bobby Jindal called his fellow Republicans “the stupid party.”

        And: The US has always had a strong anti-intellectual strain in it.

    2. Linda, I recommend to you, if you haven’t read it already, In Defense of Elitism by William A. Henry, first published in 1994. I’m looking at the book as I write this and marvelling that, though it was written almost thirty years ago, most of it is eeriely and depressingly relevant to our situation today.

      Sign me, similarly, an unabashed elitist.

  9. I don’t really believe that complicated and nefarious plans are ever likely to succeed, at least in the ways anticipated by those plotting them.
    With that out of the way, Wokeness would make sense if it were conceived and implemented by the CCP or a similar group, with the primary goal of weakening the US. It would not be necessary or even desirable to have the ground troops of wokeness clued in on such a strategy. It would best be accomplished by infiltrating or funding existing grievance groups, and tweaking their goals and objectives a bit.
    With the elimination of gifted programs, some percentage of kids who might have discovered they had a talent in one of the advanced subjects, will not ever be exposed to that material. So they end up selling used cars instead of making that breakthrough in hypersonic flight. In the long term, keeping enough of such kids from reaching their potential might pay off for an adversary. It is almost certain that the kids with the least potential, whose abilities the schools will now cater to exclusively, will not benefit particularly from keeping the hypersonic kid from being introduced to calculus. The lower potential kid might have ended up making a decent living on the assembly line of the hypersonic engine factory.
    Probably the super high achievers will find a way to reach their potential regardless, as will those with the opportunity to attend better schools. But between the extremes are a lot of kids who are the reason those programs were conceived in the first place.
    Elimination of standardized testing has a similar effect. You put a bunch of under-qualified kids on campus in the place of the hypersonic kid, and the net result is fewer kids in advanced programs or moving on to cutting edge research, and more classrooms filled with kids learning remedial skills. Or in programs like grievance studies, where little scholarship is required or even desired.
    The bonus for our opponents in the world is that a rising percentage of grievance studies graduates not only reduces the net number of graduates with useful skills, but grievance studies graduates have a negative effect on productivity in places they end up living and working.

    Again, believing that someone’s actions make better sense if seen as working to forward the interests of America’s adversaries is not the same as having facts proving that such a thing is actually happening.

    1. Agree with everything, except this sentence:
      “In the long term, keeping enough of such kids from reaching their potential might pay off for an adversary.”
      The US has had subpar school curricula for a long time (compared with the rest of the highly industrialized world). It keeps importing the fruits of better education systems for its elite universities. Too bad for US kids from lower-income households and for the countries who suffer the brain drain.

      1. “The US has had subpar school curricula”

        Not at my wife’s former (she’s retired now). She taught her second graders more about writing than I was ever taught, even in college. (And I went through a top school system in Minnesota.)

  10. It’s been said on your site before; but I’ll say it again:

    Clearly, the cure to climate change is to destroy all the thermometers.

  11. It is almost as if the woke cult was created by a Koch think tank to paralyze the left and to give the alt-right Fox News lie machine more insanity from the self-proclaimed “progressives” of the woke left to point to in order to support their claim that the entire left is insane.

  12. The way standardised testing works, and the way our futures are tied up in it, should be something we treat with suspicion. However, of we are to overhaul it out dismantle it, we need something better for the job.

    Michael Sandel’s book The Tyranny of Merit has this problem. It did well to diagnose the problems of the meritocracy, but offered only (at best) modest tweaks. Yet if we want to overhaul it, we need to recognise what it’s trying to achieve (we want an educated society, and we want to reward high achievers, surely) then we need to have a system that will achieves that. Without bringing that alternative, the desire to tear down the meritocratic system we have is just destructive. And it’s especially destructive to those disadvantaged kids who can use education as a way out of poverty.

  13. Is there any indication that any of these universities would reverse this policy on testing, or that other blue-state schools would hesitate to follow suit, if a more republican administration was elected? I am just curious why this is perceived as related to voting results. Are they suggesting this might turn blue-states into red-states?

  14. I think that the gap in educational achievement will increase even more in the future, because the woke reforms in education are not designed to help kids to develop their intellects, while good parents have better resources than ever to help their children to reach their full intellectual potential despite institutional impediments.

  15. “To remedy this takes a lot more than test preparation.” Agree. The answer to inequality is expensive and will be hard won. Let’s not go for cheap Band-Aid answers.

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