When Smart is a Number
Standardized testing is a phrase justifiably deemed “cringe worthy,” “stressful” and “unfair.” Last week I sat in a room, about to take the ACT for the first time in my life, pondering how ridiculous it was to have so much of my future dependent on a single score of a single test. My score would be sent out to every college I wanted to apply to, and the difference of just a few points on my overall rating could determine if I get admitted. The score is a scarlet letter on my chest that literally defines who I am in the eyes of the admission committee— a stamped-on brand, proclaiming to the world how smart I am.
It is a tipping factor of not only my entire future, but a determining factor in the futures of the 1,666,017 other students who took the ACT last year. Score below a twenty and you’re an idiot, score a perfect thirty six, (about 1 in every 1,075 students in California in 2013) and suddenly you’re a genius. But how is intelligence defined? Or, an even better question, can intelligence even be defined? The definition of being “smart” in the world today is being a straight ‘A’ student, having a high IQ, a 4.0, a perfect score on the ACT. With so much emphasis placed on these numbers and rankings we are assigned, it’s almost as if there’s only one true way that intelligence can be ascertained. It’s a system so exact that with only a few test scores and grades, a random sample of students could be definitively ranked from the most intelligent to the least.
Yet in the end intelligence is a factor far too complicated and individual to be determined by any form of measurement, especially one that is “standardized.” I would like to define “being smart” as having the capability to learn and problem solve. This is where the problems with a standardized education and testing system come in, because there is no universal style everybody learns, and there are an infinite number of ways to problem solve. When I was young, my great grandfather kept a jar of candy on the top of his counter, tantalizingly out of reach for us young children. It seemed as though the jar, filled with its sugary prize, was unattainable. However, my great grandfather would use this as a test to see which of his great grandchildren were the brightest.
The counter where the jar of desirables was placed happened to be right above several drawers. If the child was smart enough, he or she would eventually learn that by pulling the bottom drawer out, and standing on it, the candy jar was easily assessable. The children who cracked the code were rewarded with not only unlimited candy, but the approval of their great grandfather. I don’t remember whether or not I personally ended up passing the test, but the story has always stood out to me as an interesting example of what it really means to be “smart”. It’s observing, problem solving, learning, and perfecting. Of course there are a plethora of other ways a kid could reach the sweets, bribing a taller person, bringing over a chair, pulling down the table cloth, to name a few.
We each come into this world so individual and different. We think differently, therefore we problem solve differently. In this world, there are those who ‘pull out the drawer’ or those who ‘convince another to help’ and those who ‘bring over a stool.’ That’s what makes people so amazing. We each have a completely unique way our mind works, which should allow creativity and innovation to soar. Just look at little children.
According to “Creative Minds” a nonprofit organization dedicated to inspiring creativity and innovation, the moment we start losing our creativity, is the moment we enter public school. At age 5, we are using 80 percent of our creative potential, but by age 12, that number has shrunk to 2 percent. That’s loosing approximately 39/40ths of our creativity. The reason behind this is because intelligence has become such a one-sided aspect.As soon as we enter school, there is one way to solve problem, one correct answer, one way to learn, one grade at the end of each term, and one score at the end of the ACT. It is a system where in order for us to succeed we must strip ourselves of some of our most amazing gifts, our individual creativity, and conform.
It’s a “do or die” situation. Sure, it works great for some students. There are those whose learning style works right in sync with the way courses are taught, and they are the ones who excel. Are they smart? Absolutely. However, some of the most brilliant people I’ve met in my life are the ones who can’t pull off getting As or Bs.
Are they smart?Of course! In the end, grades can’t show how smart you are, they only show how well you can fit in the system. In the end, they don’t even show how hard you’ve worked either. Some kids come after school regularly to attend tutoring sessions and get personal help, spend several hours every night on homework, and still fail all the tests. Others pump out an assignment in half an hour, never attend tutoring sessions or even ask questions in class, and ace the tests. Neither of these students is better than the other.
For some people, working within the public school system is natural, for others, it goes against the very way their mind operates. But in order to attain quality higher education and a prestigious job, you have to be able to work within the system. So that’s what everyone strives for. Therefore, after twelve tedious years of elementary, middle, and high school, a new batch of adults enters the world. However, the tragedy is that at this point, they’ve all been taught to think in the same way.
All that individual problem solving capability and personal creativity has been bottled up. There’s no room for “stool getters” in a system that teaches “drawer pushing.” We’ve been taught that there’s only one way to get the candy. There’s only one way to create and problem solve. According to an international survey taken just this year, the United States of America is ranked 4th from the bottom in the civilized world for “innovation in education.” That means our kids aren’t being taught to think in classrooms, they’re being taught to memorize.
To be clear, the root problems don’t rely with our teachers, the problem with a common core is teachers are required to teach just doesn’t allow a margin for individualism. Math is obviously very one-sided, as well as science. History has become more memorization than analysis and critical thinking. Even writing, traditionally the most creative subject has started to be graded with online programs such as “my access” rather than real people. It’s easy to look at test score and brand students; that’s why it’s done in that way. The shift that needs to occur in how we define intelligence and teach our future generations won’t be easy, it will require more time, energy, and resources.
But the first step is realizing that there is a problem, only then can it be addressed. We need to stop defining students by bias numbers, and start looking for what it really means to be “smart.” Only then can we save our future. However, until that happens, excuse me while I go sign up for the next ACT.