We Need Creators, Not Test Takers

The modern educational focus on measurement leaves little room for students to grow into innovators…

This week, two separate but related events are occurring. The first is high school students across the US are taking the PSAT exam — a precursor to the SAT that helps universities and other academic organizations start to vet their eventual applicants. The second is Goldman Sachs (the prestigious financial services company) is firing 30 of its analysts for cheating on their internal training tests.

The universe is telling us something by putting these occurances in such proximity…

By placing such intensive focus on tests like the PSAT, the US educational system sends a clear message that students should measure themselves in comparison to one another rather than by the unique merits of their work. The immediate consequences are plain to see. Even a cursory glance at social media shows the widespread anxiety brought on by “exam season” — an effect that has become amplified as school funding is now increasingly contingent upon standardized test results.

This is not to say that we should shelter students from high pressure situations. But we need to be mindful of the impact this system is having on their sense of identity and self-worth. Requiring young people to continually pass through “failure is not an option” situations forces their worldview into a similar fatalism. As a result, although success in the business world depends on one’s ability to tolerate setbacks, we’re receiving generations of workers whose most acutely developed skill is the desperate avoidance of failure.

With this in mind, can we really be surprised by the news coming from Goldman Sachs? In terms of standardized metrics, these analysts are the “best and brightest” that today’s educational system has to offer. Having passed through so many hoops to get to their position, it’s logical that they would take any action neccesary to secure their future prospects. When your very identity hangs in the balance, ethics is a consideration left for after you’ve made the grade.

So, what can we do to change all of this?

Let’s start by taking a step back and pointing out the skills that are the most valuable for young people entering the workforce.

Failure Tolerance: The only domain where perfectionism has any sort of merit is academia. In the outside world, getting results and breaking barriers requires perserverance in the face of obstacles
Creativity: Businesses don’t get value from people that just meet expectations. Growth and competitive advantage require workers that want to create something new
Innovation: By their very nature, tests represent “inside the box” thinking. Success is solely dependent on one’s ability to work within the parameters laid out by the person that will grade their performance. The working world, however, requires individuals who disregard “the rules” and change the game
Character: Some might argue this, but the fact of the matter is that unethical leadership is expensive (see: Volkswagen, Enron). Long-term success requires values you won’t find in a financial statement

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that today’s educational culture, at its heart, reinforces none of these. The result is that the very highest positions in our society (those that are scaled through the heights of academia) are occupied by individuals who lack the core skills and virtues needed to shape the future.

What if, instead of measuring performance based on test taking, we assessed young people’s constructive ability? Rather than submitting standardized scores within a padded resume, students could be asked to submit a portfolio of their work. Research papers, screenplays, science projects, paintings — anything that portrays both their passion and their skill. This is the type of work that has real impact, yet it’s largely an afterthought in how we’re shaping future generations.

It’s a simple premise at its core:

If we stop trying to parse out the “cream of the crop,” we’ll start to see how the entire field can grow