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Cognitive Athleticism: A Meditation on the Nature of "Intelligence"

Updated on October 31, 2016
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The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.


This discussion is an experimental idea I am working on; it is a work in progress. That means that I am not yet prepared to defend it to the death, as it were. But I've been thinking about it for some time; and, if you (whoever "you" might be) don't mind, I'd like to try it out on you.

The first thing to say is that the characteristic I'm going to call cognitive athleticism is what standardized tests and I.Q. tests really measure. The error, as I see it, is taking this number or supposed measurement, as the sum total of one's "intelligence," or "scholastic aptitude," as a kind of politically correct cover for intelligence.

What is "cognitive athleticism"?

The best way, for our purposes, to get at that is with an analogy. What is physical athleticism? I will define physical athleticism very simply as the ability to move one's body with great speed, agility, power, coordination/grace --- any one or combination of any two or more characteristics.

Peyton Manning

If you have even a casual familiarity with the National Football League, you know the name Peyton Manning, a no doubt future first-round Hall of Fame inductee; a great quarterback and football player.

If you are familiar with Mr. Manning (and his brother Eli, for that matter), you know that he was never considered particularly athletic; he's not one of the seemingly modern "dual threat," "running quarterbacks." The same goes for Tom Brady and Phillip Rivers and others.

"Combines" and "Pro Days"

There is a certain way that college football players are scouted. NFL scouts watch as much tape on perpective NFL draftees as they can, of course. College players are also invited to participate in "combines" and "pro days."

These, as you may know, are workouts to which the players show up in shorts and T-shirts, to be put through their paces, as it were. These workout are designed to not only test players position knowledge and proficiency, but also their raw physical athleticism.

How fast can a player run the 40-meter dash?

How high can he jump (vertical leap)? How far can he jump (long jump)?

How much can he bench press?

And so on.

From what I understand, there seems to be some division among professional sports analysts/reporters as to the usefulness of such exercises, in evaluating players, as opposed to simply reviewing the tape.

As you may know, Robert Griffin III proved to be an extraordinary athlete, but as a relatively slender man, by NFL standards, he is relatively "fragile" by those standards. It is yet to be proven if he can learn to play the quarterback position "above the shoulders," as it were, reading defenses and making the right decision from the pocket --- and protect himself better by playing in a less physically reckless fashion, thus preserving himself for ten to twelve years in the League.

Cam Newton, on the other hand, is an embarassment of riches at the signal-caller position. Not only has he gotten a lot better in the pocket since he first hit the League, reading defenses and making the right decision with the ball; but he is also a monster athlete packaged in a big, powerful, 6'7" tight end's body. He's durable; he can run past you, around you, through you, or leap over you.

I understand that NFL scouts like quarterbacks to have big hands relative to the rest of their bodies. The reason for this is cold weather games. I hear that in cold weather, the football is harder to hold on to. If a quarterback has really big hands, it is likely that he will be able to hold on to the ball better, minimizing "turn overs." This does not mean that a team will not take a quarterback, whom they feel can contribute to their success, just because he has relatively small hands, of course. Big hands are just a plus.

Its considered a big plus is a defensive lineman can jump really high. The reason is that leaping ability is considered to be an extra way one can pressure the quarterback. If you can't get to him to "sack" him, maybe you can bat down some passes. This does not mean that a team will not take a defensive lineman, whom they feel can contribute to their team's success, just because his vertical leap is relatively ordinary. Great vertical leaping ability is just a plus.

There is at least a logic to what the NFL scouts do, then. They want to get as many good players as they can, each of whom bring as many additional, gimmick advantages to their game as possible.

But colleges and universities cannot make such a claim. They cannot make any practical claim justifying the use of high stakes testing to weed out applicants.

But what is cognitive athleticism?

Again, I will define it very simply as: the ability to deploy one's cognitive faculties with great speed, agility, power, and coordination/grace --- any one or combination of two or more of these characteristics.

Whenever we find cognitive athleticism developed to seemingly superhuman extremes, we find, for example, people being able to:

  • add, subtract, multiply, and divide forty-five digit numbers in their heads, completely unaided by a calculator
  • play a piece of music perfectly forever more, after hearing for the first time once
  • go back to 1994 and instantly tell you what day of the week January 10 was
  • literally memorize, in order, each item in a phone book
  • "count" cards

In other words, people in whom cognitive athleticism is developed to a seemingly unnatural degree, are capable of producing breathtaking cognitive displays. Another example comes from the crime caper film, The Usual Suspects.

If you remember the film, you know that Kevin Spacey's character ("Firbo"/Kaizer Sozhay) is shown to have put on a remarkable cognitive display after the fact.

Chaz Palmintierri played the cop who was investigating a big case to which "Firbo" had a tangential involvement. He interrogated Firbo in his office for a long time; but having failed to get what he wanted, Palmintierri was compelled to let Spacey's character go.

But while the two of them had been together in the office, Firbo told the cop many things, really weaved an expansive narrative, on top of supposedly telling him what he wanted to know about the big criminal conspiracy.

Now, if you saw the film, do you remember the kinds of things Spacey's character was glibly saying? "When I in that barbershop quarter in Skokie, Illinois....." and "When I was picking coffee beans in Guatemala...." "The lawyer's name was Kobayashi...."


After Palmintierri lets Spacey go, the former sits around his office, drinking coffee, trying to decompress, after a long, hard day which didn't go his way. He looks around his office and gradually a revelation begins to set in. He sees different names on his office supplies and Wanted posters tacked up on one wall.

At that moment, Palmintierri realizes that he's been played. Spacey had gone into that office, immediately took in and processed bits of information (all made available in that office) and instantly wove a tale that seemed so genuine and convincing.

At one point, Palmintierri drops his coffee cup. What name do we see on the outside bottom of that cup? Kobayashi!

Now then, beneath that level of fantastic capability, the rest of us reside, with varying, greater or lesser degrees of cognitive athleticism.


Question: What is thinking?

Without referring to a dictionary, try to define what thinking is? And remember now, you can't use a word to define itself!

By the way, I am only speaking of thinking in the conscious mode. For our purposes, we are not concerned with the unconscious, or subconscious --- whatever you want to call that much broader and deeper shadowside of our personalities.

But what is thinking?

We do it practically every minute of every day. You and I are doing it right now. I am thinking as I present an argument. You, reading this, are deciding whether or not you agree with it. If so, why? If not, why not?

Perhaps you agree with parts of it and disagree with other parts of it. The question then becomes: Why do you accept X and reject Y?

But I must persist: What is thinking?

Its not so easy to put it into so many words, is it?

Let's try this...

Can we say that thinking is the activity that activates intelligence?

What is intelligence?

Well, they say that intelligence is what separates us, human beings, from the rest of the animal world. That separation is characterized by an ability to live in the world, engage with it, and respond to it affirmatively and creatively in ways that allow us to transcend our biological nature.

We can call that intelligence: the ability to live in the world, engage with it, and respond to it affirmatively and creatively in ways that allow us to transcend our biological nature.

Actually, I believe we can call "thinking" the cause and "intelligence" the effect. Thinking, then, makes intelligence manifest or visible. The activity of mental concentration (thinking) applied to the general idea of shaping nature to fit human needs and wants, demonstrates human intelligence.

But all of that only carries us from the animal to the human, doesn't it? That won't do for our purposes.

What does it mean to be "intelligent" in hermetically sealed human society? The human species has largely "escaped" (I use this word advisedly) nature. The "world" we live in is one primarily created by human intelligence (i.e., political, social, economic, cultural forces).

What does "thinking" and "intelligence" mean in such a world?

Well, I guess we can maintain the relationship between thinking and intelligence: The activity of thinking makes intelligence manifest, or visible; thinking is proof of intelligence.

As I said before, you and I are engaged in the activity of thinking --- I am as I write this and you are as you read this.

What we are doing is emphatically not what happens in an academic testing situation, whether it be a "high stakes" standardized test or an I.Q. test, or any other academic test.

Let's say you're sitting there taking a calculus test. The test is based on material your teacher has covered in class. You have practiced the material with homework assignments. Assuming that you have studied for the test, as you sit there with your exam paper, what you are basically engaged in is the activity of recall --- not "thinking." Your concentration is on a salvage mission.

You'd better remember quickly though, because you're taking a test, and there's a time limit. If you are able to quickly match the appropriate memory to the appropriate question, you will do well.

An exam with a 'A' grade stands as proof of successful recall --- not "intelligence."

An exam with a 'C' or 'D' grade only stands of proof of a less successful recall operation, for whatever reason --- not less "intelligence."

Now, I say that taking a test is not an exercise of "thinking" because you are not breaking new ground.

Thinking as a demonstration of intelligence is uniquely intrinsic to the human condition.

So, have we come up with a definition of "thinking" and "intelligence," in the human context --- after the move from "animal" to "human" --- yet?

Its not as easy as you thought it'd be, is it?

Let's try it this way...

The ultimate question for human beings is: Why are we here? Who knows if the species will ever be granted an answer, much less an answer that starts with, "Because..."?

But all disciplines concerned with the acquisition of knowledge represent divisions of what I like to call The Great Mass Reverse Homicide Investigation. What I mean by that is that we are looking for "means, motive, and opportunity."

We are not looking for a means death, but a means of Life. We are not looking for a motive for the commission of murder, but a motive for the investiture of Human Life specifically (and perhaps the rest of life in general).

Opportunity is, of course, tricky, for obvious reasons. We do not really have a "suspect" list, after all.

This Great Enigma produces a number of fascinating riddles or mysteries about just how we, the human organism, function. For that we turn to history, anthropology, archeology, sociology, linguistics, biology, genetics, physiology, anatomy, psychology, philosophy, psychiatry, theology --- any and all "ologies" that we can think of.

The other natural and physical sciences are also involved (zoology, animal behavior, astrophysics, chemistry, and so on). We want to try to figure out the nature of the container, this thing we call a "universe" that we live in. What is the nature of the "here"?

As far as we know, we, humans, are the only species on Earth that ask the question (Why are we here?) This makes us "self aware," as they say; and this is what we are given to understand separates us from the rest of the animal world on this planet.

Perhaps we can put together one definition of "thinking" (as a demonstration of "intelligence"), albeit a rather grandiose one. But, when you consider it, that really cannot be helped, can it?

Okay, let's call "thinking," in the human context something like the following: It is the application of mental concentration, either on an individual basis or that of a community of two or more people, which is dedicated to the unraveling of the mystery of human existence (and perhaps as a corollary, existence/life in general).

Question: That's all well and good, but what about an appliance store owner who sits in his office, weighing the pros and cons of burning his store down, to collect the insurance money, as an attempt to get out from under, whatever it is he is under? Is he not engaged in the act of Thinking?

Answer: Yes.

Question: Well...?

We said before that, as human beings, we primarily live in a "world" created by human "intelligence" --- or, if you like, thousands of years of collective upon collective human "thinking," as a demonstration of "intelligence."

As for the appliance store owner, then, let us give a secondary definition of "thinking" that goes a little something like this: The activity of mental concentration directed toward making a judgment about whether and/or how to embrace the various joys and opportunities that "life," or the human "world," provides; as well as making a judgment about how to negotiate the various challenges, pitfalls, dangers, and heartache created by the human "world."

You do not engage in any of this on a high stakes standardized test. You do not engage in any of this on a regular academic course exam. You do not engage in any of this on a so-called I.Q. test. You do not do any of this in any activity whereby you are merely engaged in the activity of recall.

Larry Holmes is one of the greatest professional boxers of all time. He is one of the greatest heavyweight professional boxers of all time. And though his may not be a household name for you, Mr. Holmes is one of the greatest, longest-reigning heavyweight champions of all time.

Despite his awesome prowess at the "sweet science," Larry Holmes was never particularly physically "athletic."

Punching Power

Suppose Boxer A and Boxer B both have so-called "one-punch knockout power in either hand."

But there is a difference. There respective win-loss records show, statistically, that Boxer A has a lot of knockout, but those have always come within the first five rounds. If you get past round five with him, odds are that he will not "stop" you.

Boxer B's record also shows a lot of knockouts. But his stoppages seems to come a various points in his fights: anywhere from Round One to Round Twelve, say, seventy percent of them in the Round Seven to Round Eleven range. This means that you have to be careful when facing Boxer B in the ring, because he is always dangerous, as they say. He is a knockout threat at any time over the course of twelve rounds.

Now, neither generic brand boxer is anywhere near the league of the great Larry Holmes. But one of the areas of "athleticism" that was relatively lacking with Mr. Holmes was punching power. However, one feels obliged to mention that he was known to have the best left jab in the business.

It is important to see that our discussion of punching power reveals two levels of athleticism:

  • The athleticism of one-punch knockout power
  • The ability to maintain that one-punch knockout power over time (stamina).

We might apply this idea to a high-stakes SAT test.

Now then, there is probably not a thing "wrong" with any of the questions on an individual basis. I suspect that it is that case that any reasonably "intelligent" person who has had a decent K-12 education, could answer any of the questions correctly --- if given enough time.

I'm saying that given enough time to "think" about each question, I have no doubt that the vast majority of us would get ninety percent or more of the answers right.

But the trick is solving the problems quickly. The trick is being able to carry let's call it, "cognitive computational efficiency," (call it "punching power"), over the "distance" of hundreds of questions which must be done in a compressed time cycle (call it "cognitive computational efficiency" stamina --- the equivalent of carrying a knockout punch late in a fight).

A Few More Things

If I have not made myself clear, let me say very plainly that I do not regard displays of what I have called "cognitive computational efficiency," to be acts of "thinking," demonstrative of "intelligence."

In theory, one cannot "study" for a Scholastic Aptitude Test, because it is not really based on any material you have studied in your courses. Therefore, you would not be engaged in the act of recall.

In practice, however, one can "study," or at least "prepare" for the Scholastic Aptitude Test. There are workbooks and review courses, and so forth. But, as I understand the process, these reviews are not about providing informational content that is needed to confront the exam. It is about test-taking strategy, how you should most effectively go about the test.

Do these review sessions actually temporarily boost the cognitive computational efficiency? And after you've scored your 1350 on the SAT, does your "cognitive athleticism" simply return to its normal level --- with people forever thinking that your "aptitude" is an extremely impressive 1350 out of 1600; or 140, 150, or 160-point "intelligence quotient"?

Question #1: If you have taken a review course and used review workbooks and practice exercises --- to what extent, then, will you rely on "recall" to manage the test at the moment of truth?

Question #2: If SAT and so-called I.Q. tests are really measures of "cognitive computational efficiency," what is the role of "recall" in establishing a favorable reading for "cognitive athleticism," which is incorrectly taken to be a measure of total "intelligence" or "scholastic aptitude"?

Let's switch gears. I've been writing this essay with the deliberately skewed assumption that there are no internal, intrinsic, technical problems with high stakes scholastic aptitude testing and "intelligence quotient" testing --- so that I could present my theory of cognitive athleticism in its full bloom.

What I've basically been saying is that, at best, such testing might only capture a measure of "cognitive computational efficiency" (aka, cognitive athleticism). But what if there are internal, intrinsic, technical problems with high stakes scholastic aptitude testing and "intelligence quotient" testing?

First, a little history

"Educational tests began to change in the 1920s, in response to new developments in the technology of testing," wrote education historian Diane Ravitch. "During World War I, the nation's leading psychologists designed intelligence tests to help the army sort recruits into their roles as officers and enlisted men. These new tests, the psychologists believed, were scientific and objective, in contrast to tests written by school districts and teachers. The psychologists criticized tests with written answers; because their grading was necessarily objective. Educators became persuaded that the new standardized, multi-choice tests were the leading edge of scientific efficiency. The schools began to use them to classify students according to their ability. And the new tests had another advantage: They could be scored quickly and cheaply, often by machines, an important consideration at a time when enrollments were growing rapidly" (1).

Surprise! Surprise! There seems to be something to do with elite class favoritism in all of this.


There are problems with "using tests to make important decisions about people's lives" because "standardized tests are not precise instruments" (2).

Again, Dr. Diane Ravitch:

"Hardly a testing season passes without a news story about a goof made by a major testing company. Sometimes questions are poorly worded. Sometimes the answers are wrongly scored. Sometimes the supposedly 'right' answer to a question is wrong or ambiguous. Sometimes two or four answers on a multiple choice question are equally correct" (3).

Still quoting:

"All tests have a margin error, like opinion polls, and the same student could produce different scores when taking the same test on different days. The scores may not be wildly different, but they might be different enough to nudge the student's rating across the line from 'not proficient' to 'proficient,' or drop her down a notch" (4).

For that reason, testing experts "frequently remind school officials that standardized test scores should be used not in isolation to make consequential decisions about students, but only in conjunction with other measures of student performance of student performance, such as grades, class participation, homework, and teachers' recommendations" (5).

Moreover, Dr. Ravitch would have us know that: "The Committee on Appropriate Test Use of the National Research Council stated in an authoritative report in 1999 that 'tests are not perfect' and 'a test score is not an exact measure of a student's knowledge or skills.' Because test scores are not an infallible measure, the committee warned, 'an educational decision that will have a major impact on a test taker should not be made solely or automatically on the basis of a single test score'" (6).

But, of course, our political powers-that-be don't want to hear any of this. They demand results! This creates a situation in which the schools, caught between a rock and a hard place, game the system.

Let's count down the ways:

  1. The Dallas Morning News analyzed statewide scores in Texas, on the state's high-stakes TAKS test, which determines a schools' reputation and teachers' compensatory rewards (7).
  • They found evidence that tens of thousands of students cheated every year without being detected or punished (8).
  • Cheating was especially pervasive on the 11th grade tests, which students must pass to graduate (9).
  • Most of the cheating uncovered by reporters was in Houston and Dallas; and was more common in low-achieving schools, where the pressure to boost scores was the highest (10).
  • Cheating was found in charter schools at almost four times the rate of traditional public schools (11).

2. Most principals might seek to get higher test scores by taking measures to restrict the admission of low-performing students, because they will depress the school's test scores (12).

"They may do it by requiring an interview with parents of applicants, knowing that the parents of the lowest-performing students are not as likely to show up as the parents of more successful students. They may do it by requiring students write an essay explaining why they want to attend the school. They may exclude students with poor attendance records, since poor attendance correlates with poor academic performance. They may limit the number of students they admit who are English-language learners or in need of special education. All such requirements tend to eliminate the lowest performers" (13).

3. There may be a "lottery" for admission to the school, which "tends to eliminate unmotivated students because they are less likely to apply." Principals know who to get the best performers from "every racial and ethnic group, as well as low-income students." (14).

Education researchers call this 'skimming' or 'cream-skimming.' That way, says Dr. Ravitch, making the cynicism plainly visible, a school can "still... boast that most or all of its students are African Americans, Hispanics, and low-income" (15).

4. Another thing schools do is to actively reduce the number of low-performing students who participate in the state exams (16).

  • Principals may "encourage" these students t, theeo stay home on the day of the big test; or said low-performing students might be expelled the day before (17).
  • Sometimes students are "inappropriately" assigned to special education, to remove them from eligibility to take the tests --- in order to remove them from one "subgroup' (such as white, African American, Hispanic, or Asian), where their low score might prevent the school, as a whole, from making AYP, "adequate yearly progress" (18).
  • The principal may assign low-performingg students to a special education program which is not available at the school thereby ensuring that they will have to transfer to another school (19).
  • In California, dozens of schools reclassified students by their race, English fluency, or disability status, moving them from one category to another, to improve the school's standing under NCLB (No Child Left Behind). If a category has too few students in it, those results are not reported (20).

5. Another thing school districts do to meet test score targets, is to make the test content "less challenging" by lowering the "cut score," the passing mark on the state test (21).

  • "Actually, the test may be equally difficult as in previous years," wrote Diane Ravitch, "but if the state education department lowers the cut score, then more students will pass" (22).
  • "When the technical data are released a weeks later," Dr. Ravitch would have us know, "few in the media have the technical expertise to ass 9certain whether the cut scores were lowered; even if testing experts discover that the scores were manipulated, no one pays attention" (23).
  • Also, state's may test only a "narrow range of the state's standards," thereby making the tests "more predictable from year to year." "All such tactics," according to Dr. Ravitch, "may produce a steady, even dramatic, increase in scores without improving any student's education" (24).

6. Schools can and do expand the pool of test takers who are eligible for special accomodation: extra time, a dictionary, or any other special assistance (25).

  • Schools can and do expand the number of students who are classified as disabled, so that they will get the special accomodation (26).
  • State officials may decide that students who had been formerly classified as English language learners, should continue to receive extra accomodations --- even after they passed an English examination and achieved proficiency in English (27).

7. School districts might simply throw out poor test results.

Again, according to Diane Ravitch: "In 2007, Cleveland celebrated improved test scores, but an investigation by the Cleveland Plain Dealer determined that these districts, as well as others in Ohio, had 'scrubbed' or tossed out the test scores of students who were not continuously enrolled during the school year. Not surprisingly, most of the scores that were scrubbed were from low performers. The newspaper's analysis found that 'from 14 percent to 32 percent of the scores in grades 4 to 10 were eliminated in 2007'" (28).

8. States can just change the way tests are scoring --- the "curve" on steroids.

  • New York "quietly" changed the scoring of its tests in mathematics and English language arts, which "produced dramatic gains in the proportion who met state standards each year" (29).
  • Between 2006 (when the new tests were introduced) and 2009, the proportion of students in grades three through eight, who reached 'proficiency' on the math tests lept from 28.6 percent to an amazing 63.3 percent in Buffalo, from 30.1 percent to 58.2 percent in Syracuse, and from 57 percent to 81.8 percent in New York City (30).
  • In New York, as a whole, the proportion of students who were 'proficient,' in these years, jumped from 65.8 percent to 86.5 percent (31). How did it happen?
  • Well, "... state officials made it easier to pass the tests. In 2006, a student in seventh grade was required to get 59.6 percent of the points on the test to meet state standards in mathematics; by 2009, a student in that grade needed only 44 percent to be considered proficient. Most people would consider a score of 44 percent to be a failing grade, not evidence of proficiency" (32).

New York's Regent Examinations

  • Students must score a 65 to receive a high school diploma (33).
  • Many students have failed to reach this bar; but state officials put in a fix by adjusting the "cut score" (34).
  • The public probably assumed that a student who got a 65, answered 65 percent of the questions correct; but in algebra, for example, a student would receive a passing score of 65 if he only earned 34.5 percent of the possible points (35).
  • To win a "65" in biology, a student would only need to earn 46 percent of the possible points. It goes without saying that all of this helped boost the high school graduation rate (36).

In 2009, something called The Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago released a study demonstrating that the city's claims of dramatic score gains were exaggerations (37).

  • Chicago school officials boasted that between 2004 - 2008, the proportion of 8th-grade students who met state standards in reading increased from 55 percent to 76 percent; and in mathematics, it grew from 33 percent to 70 percent. (Dr. Ravitch notes that President Obama had recited these statistics when he announced his appointment of Arne Duncan, Chicago's Superintendent of Schools, as the U.S. Secretary of Education) (38).
  • However, the conclusion of the study was that: 'these huge increases reflect changes in the tests and testing procedures---not real student improvement' (39).
  • In 2006 the state hired a new testing company, which introduced a new test and lowered the "cut scores" (mainly in 8th-grade mathematics), thus producing an illusion of remarkable gains (40).
  • At the time Chicago's scores on state tests rose, its scores on the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress), from 2003 to 2007 were flat (41).
  • Furthermore, student performance in high school remained "disastrously low from 2001 to 2008," suggesting that any modest improvements in the elementary grades disappeared by high school (42).

9. The Notorious Test-Prep Sessions

Dr. Ravitch wrote:

"Of all the ways of gaming the system, the most common is test preparation. Most districts, especially urban districts where performance is lowest, relentlessly engage in test-prep activities" (43).


"[S]chool districts have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in programs and training materials to teach students the specific types of questions that will appear on the state tests. For weeks or even months before the state tests, children are drilled daily in test-taking skills and on questions mirroring those that are likely to appear on the state test" (44).

What is the ultimate result of all of this test-prep? Useless and even dysfunctional specialization --- not even an honest measurement of what I called "cognitive athleticism" in the first part of this discussion.

"The consequence of all this practice," Dr. Ravitch would have us know, "is that students may be able to pass the state test, yet unable to pass a test of precisely the same subject for which they did not practice. They master test-taking methods, but not the subject itself" (45).

For further institutional support, let us turn to the National Research Council's Committee on Appropriate Test Use. What they have said is that 'all students are entitled to sufficient test preparation,' which is obvious enough, but they cautioned that 'by teaching so narrowly to the objectives of a particular test that scores are raised without actually improving the broader set of academic skills that the test is intended to measure' (46).

Goal Distortion

We come to what I consider to be the climax of this phase of our discussion: goal distortion.

First of all, Dr. Ravitch makes reference to the work of Daniel Koretz, a psychometrician at Harvard, who also contends that coaching students for state tests produces score inflation and the illusion of progress (47).

Dr. Koretz refers to something called "Campbell's Law," which says that: 'The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor' (48).

Once again quoting Dr. Ravitch:

"Written by sociologist Donald T. Campbell in 1975, this saying has become legendary as a description of the way organizations in every field change their behavior to meet external measures" (49).

We could actually change the words "external measures" to what I would term external institutional pressures. "Pressure," to my way of thinking, is the operative word.

This is rather similar to a thing I, myself, always say: If you put people in a position in which you ask them to accomplish the impossible --- I mean defy the laws of physics impossible --- the only way they will be able to do it, or seem to 'do it,' will be by cheating. You will create a culture of cheating, in which virtually the only people who prosper in that environment, will turn out to be the best cheaters.

Dr. Ravitch again:

"Koretz offers many examples of goal distortion drawn from medicine, job training, industry, and other fields. Most cardiologists in New York stopped performing surgery on critically ill cardiac patients, he writes, after the state began issuing scorecards that reported mortality rates" (50).

"To avoid getting a bad score, many doctors refused to operate on risky patients; some patients were turned away who might have survived surgery" (51).

Avoidance is another technique. What is important to see here is that state government goal distortion created a situation in which it became virtually emotionally impossible for many cardiologists to operate precisely on those heart patients who most needed surgical intervention.

Another example comes from the airlines. "Similarly, when the airline industry was required to report on-time arrivals, they manipulated the statistics by changing the expected duration of flights; as a results, the on-time statistics became meaningless" ((52).

If you've been following this issue, you know that teachers and schools are being squeezed between a rock and a hard place by federal government policy. You may know that some states and districts have introduced something called "merit" pay plans, which explicitly tie teacher compensation to standardized test scores. Some districts like Chicago, New York City, and Washington D.C., closed schools in response to test scores; others gave bonuses to principals or fired them based on test scores (53).

I think the best way to wrap up, for now, is to make a very brief, quick, glancing reference to a New York magazine article by Jennifer Senior: "The Myth of the Gifted Child: The Junior Meritocracy."

The header or "tag line," or whatever you call it reads: "If a four-year-old aces an intelligence test, she is often set for life. Trouble is that test is worthless" (54).

That is what the article is about. It's about how relatively affluent families provide coaching for their four-year-olds, so that these babies can get a good score on certain I.Q. tests, thereby gaiing admission to elite, "selective" private or public elementary schools. The trajectory tends to lead into further elite level education, the Ivy League for college, and then into Ivy League post graduate futures.

Let me just cite two items from the article which directly relate to our purposes.

I.David Lohman, a psychologis at the University of Iowa, authored a 2006 paper: "Gifted Today But Not Tomorrow?" The question he dealt with is this: How many four-year-olds who scored a 130 or higher on an I.Q. test, would be able to repeat the performance thirteen years later, as 17-year-olds? The answer he came back with, after his research, is 25 percent (55).

This is a significant contradiction to the conventional wisdom that so-called I.Q. is permanent, unchanging, and static.

II. I want to just quote Jennifer Senior's conclusion, in which she poses a question, and then answers it without seeming to realize she has done so.

She rhetorically asks what the meaning of all of this is. Then she writes the following:

"Rather than promoting a meritocracy, in other words, these tests instead retard one. They reflect the world as it's already stratified --- and perpetuate the same stratification" (56).

I couldn't have said it better myself. That's all folks!

Thank you for reading!


1. Ravitch, Diane. The Death And Life Of The Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. Basic Books, 2010. 151

2. ibid, 152

3. ibid

4. ibid

5. ibid

6. ibid, 153

7. ibid, 155

8. ibid

9. ibid

10. ibid

11. ibid

12. ibid

13. ibid

14. ibid, 156

15. ibid

16. ibid

17. ibid

18. ibid

19. ibid

20. ibid

21. ibid

22. ibid, 157

23. ibid

24. ibid

25. ibid

26. ibid

27. ibid

28. ibid

29. ibid

30. ibid, 157-158

31. ibid, 158

32. ibid

33. ibid

34. ibid

35. ibid

36. ibid

37. ibid

38. ibid

39. ibid

40. ibid

41. ibid, 158-159

42. ibid, 159

43. ibid

44. ibid

45. ibid

46. ibid

47. ibid

48. ibid, 160

49. ibid

50. ibid

51. ibid, 160-161

52. ibid, 161

53. ibid, 162

54. Senior, Jennifer. (2010, February). The Myth of the GIfted Child: The Junior Meritocracy. New York magazine. p.28

55. ibid, 32

56. ibid, 33


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