How the Obsession with Test Scores Helps Produce Children Who Lack Creativity and Empathy

Excerpted from The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America  by Lani Guinier (Beacon Press, 2015). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

Carol Dweck’s numerous studies show that an individual who believes intelligence is “fixed” is much more likely to fail in the face of new challenges, while an individual who believes that intelligence can grow with hard work is much more likely to excel in the face of new challenges.

Dweck first investigated the underpinnings of human motivation as a graduate student at Yale University in the 1960s. She had read about “learned helplessness” in animals. Psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania showed that after repeated failures to stop something negative from happening, most animals conclude that the situation is hopeless and beyond their control. After such an experience, the animal often remains passive even when it can effect change, a state the researchers called “learned helplessness.”

After reading these studies, Dweck observed that some people also exhibited “helplessness” in the face of repeated failure. But she was more fascinated by the people who don’t—the people who still persevere in the face of setbacks. She wondered: “Why do some students give up when they encounter difficulty, whereas others who are no more skilled continue to strive and learn?” After more than three decades of conducting countless studies, she concludes that “one answer . . . [lies] in people’s beliefs about why they had failed.” In short, students who attribute poor performance to a lack of innate ability will continue to perform poorly. However, students with the same incoming abilities who believe their poor performance is due to effort—and thus can be overcome with hard work—will improve their performance over time. Dweck has developed a broader theory of what separates the two general classes of learners: helpless versus mastery oriented. Through her research, she found that students not only diverge in how they explain their failures but that they also hold different “theories” of intelligence. Some subscribe to a “fi xed mind-set” of intelligence, others to a “growth mind-set.”

Dweck coined the term “fixed mind-set” to describe “the helpless ones [who] believe that intelligence is a fixed trait: you only have a certain amount, and that’s that. . . . Mistakes crack their self-confidence because they attribute errors to lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change.” Students with a “fixed mind-set” avoid challenges because they want to avoid mistakes. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talents instead of developing them. In contrast, students with a “growth mind-set” believe that intelligence can be developed through education and hard work. “They want to learn above all else,” Dweck writes. “[Since] slipups stem from a lack of effort, not ability, they can be remedied by more effort. Challenges are energizing rather than intimidating; they offer opportunities to learn.” To illustrate the behavior of “growth mind-set” students, Dweck shared several anecdotes from her studies:

[Growth-minded students] focused on fixing errors and honing their skills. One advised himself: “I should slow down and try to figure this out.” Two schoolchildren were particularly inspiring. One, in the wake of difficulty, pulled up his chair, rubbed his hands together, smacked his lips and said, “I love a challenge!” The other, also confronting the hard problems, looked up at the experimenter and approvingly declared, “I was hoping this would be informative!”

Dweck wanted to know whether a growth mind-set led to higher, lower, or equal levels of student performance. To answer this question, Dweck did what she was trained to do: she designed an experimental study, and then another, and then another. All the results repeatedly reaffirmed her conclusion that students with a growth mind-set have greater academic success and are more likely to outperform their fixed-mind-set counterparts. For example, in 2007, Dweck and her colleagues shared the results of a two-year study that monitored 373 students during the transition from elementary to junior high school, when classwork gets more difficult. At the beginning of seventh grade, all the students had roughly the same incoming math scores. But though students had equivalent scores, they did not have equivalent mind-sets—some saw intelligence as fixed, while others believed it could “grow” with effort. To assess these students’ initial mind-sets, Dweck and her colleagues asked students at the start of seventh grade to agree or disagree with statements such as “Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t really change.” After determining each student’s initial mind-set, Dweck and her colleagues tracked each student’s grades. The results? Not only did students with “growth mind-sets” perform better on math tests than their fixed-mind-set peers, but this difference in performance also grew over time.

Furthermore, Dweck’s research finds that even our “mind-set” is not innate but malleable. The type of praise an individual receives can affect an individual’s mind-set. When students receive praise for their intelligence, they are more likely to adopt a fixed mind-set than when they receive pats on the back for effort. In a 1998 study, Dweck found that those who were congratulated for their intelligence

shied away from a challenging assignment . . . far more than the kids applauded for their effort. . . . When we gave everyone hard problems anyway, those praised for being smart became discouraged, doubting their ability. And their scores, even on the easier problem set we gave them afterward, declined as compared with their previous results on equivalent problems. In contrast, students praised for their effort did not lose confidence when faced with the harder questions, and their performance improved markedly on the easier problems that followed.

Dweck’s studies show us two things. First, students who view intelligence as capable of growth will perform better than those who don’t— that is, valuing the learning process over a test score will help students achieve at higher levels. Second, students are more likely to adopt a growth mind-set if others praise them for their effort rather than their intelligence. These conclusions mirror the results of Mazur and Treisman, who in effect increased student test scores by adopting strategies that promoted a growth mind-set over a fixed mind-set in their classrooms. As if they had been reading Dweck’s work, both Mazur and Treisman placed great value on the learning process, not just on giving a right answer.

But this is not the end of the story. Mazur and Treisman did more than just convey to students that intelligence was malleable rather than fixed. They also conveyed that success depended on certain study habits and behaviors that were—like intelligence—capable of improvement.

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This focus on academic behaviors, or “character traits,” may be another secret to student success, according to author Paul Tough. Like Dweck, Tough is interested in what makes some students succeed while others flounder. He decided to write a book that would help him “solve some of the most pervasive mysteries of life: who succeeds and who fails? Why do some children thrive while others lose their way? And what can any of us do to steer an individual child—or a whole generation of children—away from failure and toward success?”

His research question was similar to Dweck’s. But while Dweck turned to social science for the answer, Tough decided to take a more holistic approach by showing the connections between very different fields of research: economics, neuroscience, pediatrics, and psychology. Surveying these various fields, Tough made a bold observation: the prevailing “cognitive hypothesis” that saturates our culture is misguided. This hypothesis, he explains, is “the belief, rarely expressed aloud but commonly held nonetheless, that success today depends primarily on cognitive skills—the kind of intelligence that gets measured on IQ tests, including the abilities to recognize letters and words, to calculate, to detect patterns.”

This hypothesis is exactly what gives the SAT and other standardized tests their life’s breath. Being able to half-decipher the meaning of an arcane word or to eliminate one or two wrong math answers and thereby improve one’s ability to guess—without knowing how one has arrived at the right answer—these are the skills that our culture prizes. Yet the research and testimony that Tough encountered thoroughly discredit this “cognitive hypothesis.” In its place, he has developed a new theory based on the importance of positive character traits. Tough found that what matters most to a child’s success is not how much information we can stuff into a child’s brain but rather “whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence.” Thus, Tough appropriately titled his book How Children Succeed: Grit,Curiosity, and the Power of Hidden Character.

Tough offers many studies and programs to support his assertion that success depends upon developing key character traits more than on simply developing rote skills. To show that IQ scores don’t summarize intelligence, he gives the example of the Perry Preschool project, conducted in the 1960s. In this research project, children were recruited from a low-income neighborhood. Half were admitted to Perry, a high-quality, two-year preschool program, while the other half served as the “control group” without a free offer of preschool. The researchers followed the two groups of children for decades to track the effects of the preschool program. The results were not what you might expect. Researchers found that attending Perry Preschool had no lasting effect on the children’s IQ scores. By third grade, both the Perry children and the control group had equivalent IQ scores. Researchers did observe, however, that attending Perry Preschool carried an important long-term effect. Compared to the control group, Perry students were more likely to have graduated from high school, more likely to be employed by age twenty-seven, more likely to be earning more than $25,000 a year by age forty, less likely ever to have been arrested, and less likely to have spent time on welfare.

These results intrigued James Heckman, a professor of economics, who dug deeper into the archives. Heckman found that the Perry Preschool scored students on what Heckman called “noncognitive skills,” such as curiosity, relationships with fellow students, social fluidity, and self-control. Heckman found that these noncognitive factors were responsible for as much as two-thirds of the total benefit that Perry gave its students and led, from his perspective, to the differences in measurable life outcomes.

From the Perry Preschool study, Tough concluded that social skills “and the underlying traits they reflected turned out to be very valuable indeed.” Tough has been able to show that character traits are important not only in an early childhood environment but in a college context as well. In his chapter “How to Build Character,” he writes about David Levin, a founder of KIPP Academy. KIPP (which stands for the Knowledge Is Power Program) is an innovative charter school program whose mission is to provide a high-quality middle school education to children from low-income communities. Since its start in the 1990s, KIPP schools have yielded some highly impressive student scores. In 1999, the students of KIPP Academy in Bronx, New York, earned the highest scores of any school in the Bronx and the fifth-highest in all of New York City.

But Levin came to the same conclusion I am advocating in this book: test scores in and of themselves, as a single-minded approach to education, are meaningless. The initial cohort of KIPP in New York City did extremely well in terms of their test scores. They left middle school with outstanding academic results and most won admission to highly selective private or Catholic high schools. Almost every member of the Bronx class made it through high school, and most enrolled in college. But once in college KIPP students started to struggle: six years after their high school graduation, only 21 percent of the cohort had completed a four-year college degree.

Levin was pained by this low graduation rate. He analyzed the dropout reports and noticed something curious: the students who succeeded in college were not necessarily those who had tested well or excelled academically in KIPP. Instead, they seemed to be the ones who possessed certain other gifts, skills like optimism and resilience and social agility. Levin knew then that he had to promote these traits among his students.

Levin worked closely with social psychologists Martin Seligman and Angela Duckworth to identify key character traits that would enable students to reach the highest levels of success, both in KIPP and later in college. After much discussion, they identified seven traits: grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity. After identifying the traits, Duckworth worked with Levin to develop an evaluation tool that teachers and students could use to assess “character strengths.” Then, in 2007, Levin introduced the first-ever “character report card.” He knew there would be problems with quantifying character, so he asked students to rate themselves, as well as having teachers rate them. By 2011, Tough observed that the emphasis on character traits had gone “viral”—it was everywhere at the KIPP Academy in New York. Levin explains that the focus on character “has to permeate everything in the school, from the language people use, to lesson plans, to how people are rewarded and recognized, to signs on the wall. If it’s not woven into the DNA of an institution, it will have minimal impact.” Indeed, KIPP’s increased emphasis on character has shown promising results. Though the first cohort of graduates was in 2003, all the academies, across the United States, saw only a 21 percent college graduation rate in six years. However, the class of 2005 doubled this graduation rate: 46 percent of KIPP students graduated in six years.

The effectiveness of KIPP’s character-building approach will become more apparent with time, but this example highlights the importance of developing particular traits in order to excel in college and beyond: resilience, optimism, and social agility. These traits are important not only for low-income students but for all students; they are essential ingredients for success. But the prevailing focus on test scores downplays the importance of these character traits—and it is the students who suffer the most because of it. Emphasizing an individual test score discourages students from taking risks, engaging in creative solutions, and embracing failure as an opportunity for learning.

Dominic Randolph, the headmaster of the prestigious Riverdale Country School, a prep school in New York City, shares the same concerns about the importance of teaching students character traits such as resilience and curiosity. Despite the different demographics of KIPP Academy in the Bronx and Riverdale (whose students primarily come from wealthy and highly educated families), Randolph worries that Riverdale students are missing out on strengthening their character, by which he means developing traits like grit and self-control that will carry a student through struggles and failure. He criticizes the over-emphasis on IQ testing, observing that “this push on tests . . . is missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human.” According to Randolph, a culture that focuses primarily on test scores fails to develop these critical character traits in its young people. It does not encourage students to take risks, develop curiosity, or engage in activities that may lead to failure and thereby growth. He explains, “People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”

Unfortunately, Randolph’s worries don’t seem that far-fetched. I have already pointed out that the job choices of many graduates from our most elite colleges show a lack of empathy and creativity. In fact, the negative social repercussions of raising a generation of graduates afraid of bold pursuits that require some degree of struggle and potential failure could in the long run be devastating. In Tough’s closing chapter, he observes: “There are fewer entrepreneurs graduating from our best colleges these days: fewer iconoclasts, fewer artists, fewer everything, in fact, except investment bankers and management consultants.

Recently, the New York Times  reported that "more than half of the [Princeton] class was going into investment banking or consulting—and this after the near-collapse of the finance industry in 2008.” James Kwak, an economics blogger and law professor, explained this trend toward banking and consulting among graduates of elite schools: “It’s that the firms make the path and the decision so easy to take and so hard to resist.” Kwak concludes, “For people who don’t know how to get a job in the open economy and who have ended each phase of their lives by taking a test to do the most prestigious thing possible in the next phase, all of this comes naturally.” A decline in creative leadership and problem solving is one possible side effect of emphasizing test scores over character traits like resilience, social intelligence, and curiosity.

The 21st century needs college graduates who can address the prevailing issues of our era, such as global warming, an expanding technological landscape, and the equitable distribution of opportunities. These issues require collaboration, experimentation, creativity, and optimistic perseverance; this kind of thinking will help us tackle old problems in ways that will provide us with new solutions.

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