Testing the exam

Debates over examinations embody not just technical pedagogical questions, but a vast array of social anxieties and aspirations. The reaction to possible changes in admissions criteria for the IIT was a small example of this phenomenon. A few months ago the Singapore education minister provoked great discussion by suggesting that Singapore was a "meritocracy of exams", but America was a "meritocracy of talent". Exams don't pick out a vast array of unquantifiable forms of talent necessary for a vibrant and creative society. And the minister was suggesting that Singapore would do well to incorporate other elements as well. The relationship between talent and exams is a deeply vexed one. In an exam system there is the worry: what exactly are we trying to pick out through an exam system?

But there is another disquieting question about the relationship between exams and meritocracy. America fits in oddly in the category of "meritocracy". At an intuitive level we understand that America is extraordinarily open to talent, from wherever it comes. But it is not a meritocracy in the classic sense. Its powerful institutions of access to education and other forms of power never have and still do not rely exclusively on what we would classically define as criteria of merit. Its institutions have vast discretion to use a range of considerations, including a candidate's wealth, in determining admissions. What is striking about the American system is how much discretion is built into it at all levels. In fact, the more radical question the American experiment poses is this: why do we assume that for a society to be able to nurture a vast array of relevant talent it has to be a meritocracy all the way down? There is one sense in which it has to be meritocratic, namely that people are not excluded from participating because of who they are based on characteristics like race, ethnicity or gender. But beyond that it is an open question what principles nurture talent.

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