The failure of Menlo Park

Despite mounting evidence that standardized tests are of little value, the mystique over high test scores is still firmly entrenched in our culture. Even though Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of college, they both viewed SAT scores as an important hiring measure at the companies they created. Technology geniuses, it should be noted, were the early adaptors of standardized tests as a marker of objective merit. Before the existence of Microsoft and Facebook, there was Thomas Edison and IBM; a man and a company that helped foster America’s obsession with standardized testing.    

Grading bubble-tests on a large scale was a novel use, and perhaps the perfect use, for the neophyte International Business Machines Corporation (IBM). While personal computing as we know it was still decades away, the 1920’s saw the sorting and scoring of exams as a breakthrough use for these incredible “business machines”. Similarly, inventor and businessman Thomas Edison viewed standardized testing as a convenient way to screen prospective employees for his various projects and ventures. The combination of a celebrated “influencer” (Edison) and an exciting “viral” technology (IBM) propelled standardized testing into the fabric of American life.

Interestingly, there was a critical moment when such testing, still in its infancy, could have been placed back within Pandora’s box. On May 17, 1921, Thomas Edison gave his “employee screening test” to a visitor who promptly failed the exam. The guest declared that standardized tests are of little value and not consistent with learning or knowledge.  The visitor even stated, “if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Fortunately, for Edison and for IBM, the opinions of the quirky foreign guest were not persuasive enough to quell America’s interest in standardized testing as a measure of intelligence. It is hard to comprehend how Mr. Edison did not find it strange that his guest failed this intelligence test. His guest, after all, was Albert Einstein.

The challenge with standardized exams is not that they tell us a story that is bad, but that they fail to tell us anything at all. For every Edison, whose genius is congruent with these exams, there is an Einstein, whose genius does not translate. For every Jeff Bezos (Amazon, perfect SAT scores) there is a Jack Ma (Alibaba, failed his university exam twice). For every Stanley Kubrick (genius IQ) there is a Steven Spielberg (rejected from film school three times). The ability to quickly label a person as “smart” or “dumb” is an oversimplification no matter what the method of measure. Intelligence, we are learning, is not a monolithic trait but a constellation of skills, thoughts, and attributes. We need Edisons just as we need Einsteins; what we do not need, however, is to remain beholden to exams that cannot clearly identify both types of thinking as exceptional.


Twitter @JayMacGregorMD