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What Does a Standardized Test Measure?

There is no standardized test to guide you if your child is on the path to contributing something unique to the world. Instead, on the 10,000 hour talent journey, your child is on the path to creating something new, with a new direction of excellence or new combination of skills.

Re-evaluate what you are doing if you are using a standard battery of tests and exams to guide the focus of your child’s work. There is is a possibility that your child is sinking his time and hard effort into already very well served areas of life. Those tests and exams rose up in the context of making it easy to move lots of people down a path of identical expertise as efficiently as possible. Many times, the level of testing for a skill or knowledge base is increased far beyond what is necessary in order to perform the tasks they will be called on to do in their work life. This is to help the narrow the number of people needed because there are so many in that field already. Ponder this for a while.

However if you are focused on creating talent in your child’s life, then what you are trying to do with your son or daughter is different. By definition, unusual talent will not easily fit the existing standard measurement tools in school. Yet most of the time as parents we are trying to make our children fit into a standard mold so that it easily be reward by high grades in a standardized test. That standardized test is a mold designed to produce a specific well-established skill set and a well established performance level. It is not designed to create the new shape of service for the needs of the world. No one is  holding their breath as to whether or not one more person is professionally shaped by it.

What tests would one have used for example to measure the progress of a Julia Child or that of the creator, Scott Adams, of the Dilbert cartoon? If those two people had used standardized tests so as to guide them down a well established path, we probably would not have had the result of both those people’s unique and outstanding contributions to the world. Julia Child might have then become an A+ sous-chef by continuing on with formal training in France and the creator of Dilbert might have made a living designing art covers had he gone to graphic arts school – but we would have missed the talents for which they have become known.

To be clear: tests aren’t bad things in themselves and in fact are quite useful in being able to measure those skills that are held in common and are abundantly needed and provided. Some of those tests your talented child can use to help guide him on short treks through his journey, but he and you should not over-estimate their usefulness. I’m glad my plumber has followed a typical apprenticeship and testing path for his profession as I am expecting him to fix problems in my house that are within the realm of normal. But that is not what talent is about.

The pursuit of standardized tests can be disastrous for real a long-term talent strategy if it is not kept under control. In moderation standardized tests can be used as mini-goals to acquire certain skill packages. The trick is to not confuse them as the definitive signposts to lead your child toward his own amazing talent. Constantly trying to please future standardized tests can draw parents into producing look-alike children that can’t be differentiated from other children in the community. If your children are particularly studious then they wind up doing the common knowledge things very well. This is better than your child doing the average thing poorly, but a far cry from being able break new ground in a particular field of talent.

For example, your child chasing established standard tests could lead him to become so good at music that he is able to perfectly imitate Mozart and the Beatles on demand…but he still can’t bring anything of new and real value to the world. Everyone in the end would still rather just buy the Mozart CD than to listen to his interpretation of those composers. It would have been better for him to be less perfect on those technical skills (and give up on those corresponding exams that prove that technical competency) and spent more time being hyper creative in applying music to a new context.

On a quick recent drive through San Francisco, I saw so many young look-alike art students on the sidewalk taking a smoking break outside of an apparently big art school. They might has well have put a big neon sign in front of that school saying “losers, come this way if you have no idea what to do with your life”. I can only imagine they are being taught to learn to paint like Van Gogh (cool, but already been done) or learn how to carve sacrilegious cuss words into trendy stone benches (not at all cool – has that trend died out yet?!). And then they will end up working for those who are setting the yet-to-be new standards, while they remain obscure artists. What if instead your child could always be ahead of the trend? And maybe find a way at the same time to contribute something to the world that others of great added value and for which they will be financially rewarded?