Saturday, June 16, 2012

On Performance Based Evaluation and Meritocracy

The American school system, and probably most of our workforce, prides itself on being a meritocracy, or a system in which our rewards are proportional to our performance on examinations. This doesn't seem too suspicious when placed in this light, but meritocracy has its dark side as well.

One's performance is often considered to be a function of one's ability and effort. However, this assumption is not always accurate. When we base the rewards reaped in society on one's results on examinations, we open the door to gamesmanship. What do I mean by this? The purpose of education no longer becomes to learn, but to maximize one's score on a test. Why does this occur? Because in a meritocracy, nobody cares about the process that was taken to get to a certain score. All that matters is the score, the whole score, and nothing but the score. Thus, students gain a very narrow minded view of the system, in which they do not study out of interest, but out of the desire to get the highest grade possible on an exam. I mentioned some of these points in a previous article titled "Studying the Tests".

What's so bad about this anyway? That depends on how useful the knowledge on the exams actually is for the real world. Since the students in a meritocracy will spend most of their time learning the tests, it would make sense to design those tests around useful skills. If the test is simply designed to measure intellect or some other abstract concept, then the existence of a meritocracy may actually be harmful for society.

The above argument is often countered by the belief that, even if an exam tests skills that are largely pointless to society, a high score demonstrates a strong work ethic, assuming that the tests are designed in such a way that they can be studied. It is also argued that there is nothing wrong about testing for intellect, since a higher intellect demonstrates a higher capacity for learning and mentally adapting to various challenges. This makes those with higher intellects ideal employees, as they can quickly pick up any necessary skills missed in school once they reach the job.

To a certain degree, both these points are correct. It does often take much studying, and thus work ethic, to do really well on exam, but it also means that individuals with a higher baseline level of talent can skate by the exams with minimal effort. Since these individuals were gifted with their talent, they have not demonstrated any capacity for hard work by doing well on the evaluation. The same goes for the point about testing for brain power as a good means of finding successful employees. Those with higher intellect will not demonstrate any work ethic by doing well on exams based largely on intellect. Does a brilliant but lazy person really make for a better employee than a duller but highly productive one? I think not. Both bring something different and useful to the workforce, and both should be given a chance to prove themselves.

So, how can we better keep this situation from arising? The key is to make sure that examinations and other performance evaluations do not lean too far to the side of testing fluid intellect, or the intellect that we are largely born with. Performance evaluations should base themselves just as much on crystallized intelligence (or learned facts) as they do on talent. For example, in a typical college classroom, attendance is either not required, or counts for very little at all. It is even more surprising when professors begin to wonder why students aren’t going to class. In a meritocracy, there is simply no point in coming to class if the student feels he can do just as well on the exams without showing up. Rectifying this is simple: Make attendance mandatory and give it more weight during the calculation of the final grade. There are few clearer signs of work ethic than consistently attending lecture.

There are certainly many other examples that could be generated, but the basic concept remains the same. To avoid spawning an unproductive workforce, we must make sure that we emphasize effort and crystallized intelligence in meritocratic examinations and evaluations. We must make sure that we emphasize that effort matters as much for success as talent does.

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