Sunday, April 1, 2012

Evolution of Examinations (irrelevant to our blog theme)

After taking the evolution and biochemistry midterms last week, I just thought it would be interesting to delve into the origins of examinations and testing systems. When did human beings officially start this system of consciously evaluating specific criteria?

Evolutionarily speaking, this idea of testing, filtering, and selecting can go back to the idea of sexual selection. Mates choose others via specific traits. But when did this system emerge in a societal context?

According to Ancient Chinese history, China was the first country to implement testing systems, called the Imperial Examination, during the Sui Dynasty in 605 AD. The main purpose of this exam was to select specific individuals for governmental positions. England was the second nation to adopt this system in 1905, 1300 years later,  for similar purposes of selecting candidates for Her Majesty's Civil Service.

One of the earliest photographs of examination in 1940.

Nowadays, examinations are used in myriad contexts, from the infamous MCAT and LSAT to CPA certifications and physical fitness tests in the military.

Annual South Korean college entrance exmination, called Soo-neung(수능). The exams last from 8:40 AM to 5:35 PM (approx. 9 hours).

It is true that these systems of testing and quantifying one's aptitude via quantized numeration. But could there have been a better solution? Or is this an irrevocable part of nowadays' society?

Any types of comments are welcomed!


  1. This makes me think of a few things.

    First of all, how possible is it to apply biological evolution concepts to social evolution? One of the most unfortunate things to come out of Darwin's work was the concept of "Social Darwinism". Since social Darwinism has NOTHING to do with natural selection, and grossly misrepresents the fundamentals of this theory, I am automatically turned off by trying to mix social and biological evolution. However, Richard Dawkins, among others, suggest that all evolution really needs are "self-replicating units" (memes). Standardized testing could, perhaps, fit the bill. The interesting thing about social events and structures is that they don’t necessarily keep up with the times. Genetic populations, when faced with a slightly novel environment, can usually adapt fairly quickly. People, however, will stick dogmatically to a system that is already present just out of habit, even if the system is now greatly flawed and outdated.

    The hilarious thing about testing is that most people think it is a great equalizer. Everyone takes the same test, so it's fair for everyone across social scales, different backgrounds, etc, right? This has been shown time and time again to be completely false, and we need to stop pretending that these tests are equalizers. Can we change these inequalities? If more people actually recognized that this equality is an illusion, would it actually change at all? Because of what I mentioned earlier, probably not.

    In some ways, I also think that standardized testing has a slight "genetic drift" feel to it. The way you do on an exam has a lot to do with random fluctuations of how tired you are on the day, what else you have on your mind, etc. Even stress levels don't necessarily relate to how much you know/have studied. I went into most of my national French "life-determining" examinations extremely relaxed. I went into the oral examination in French tongue-tied, made a bad joke to the examiner he didn't get, and had him look at me steelily over his glasses as I floundered nervously into test-score oblivion.

    A great deal could be improved if we merely eliminated the stigma of test scores and the great social weight we put on them. I did very well on my SATs, as I am sure is true of most people at Rice. When my relatives found out my score, it was received with almost religious admiration, and as a sure sign I was "very smart". As if this were really more important that what I say, what I do, what I'm interested in! Really, I don't think we have to stop testing. I just think we have to stop seeing it as an ultimate sign of success. Once people start realizing doing well on a standardized test is just that - doing well on a standardized test, nothing more, nothing less - we should be able to improve the way we see and evaluate people. We can keep tests, but we all need to start actively recognizing their flaws.

  2. I think you reply is actually longer than my post lol. Thanks for your input.

    I don't want to go into the philosophical or social issues of standardized tests and all that- of course everyone has different opinions and I am pretty nonchalant and ambivalent about it. The point of this post was to see how it naturally emerged into the human society and started taking such a big part. And as you can see, the post wasn't meant to be all that serious (from all the cartoons and pictures), it's more of a rant after midterm week :) But I appreciate your input. I honestly wasn't expecting this deep of a response. More along the lines of "yea that exam was HARD."

    As for trying to tie the whole idea of "biological evolution" and social evolution, yes I did stretch the connection a bit (pretty prevalent from the first cartoon), but I don't think I specifically tried to connect those two; I simply said this type of selection exists in sexual selection- and how did this emerge in social context? The direction I was going towards was how species intraspecifically evaluate others. As you mentioned, the skills or the knowledge that these exams test for are somewhat very specific, like SAT, or biological selections, and that was to the extent I wanted to connect it with. I don't think I ever used the phrase "natural selection" on the post, even though I might've somehow mentioned it vicariously. But I can definitely see where your opinions are coming from.

  3. No, I never thought you were going for the natural selection angle - I guess I was just pondering in general, and not really focusing too much on the original post/your intentions. It was basically an internal conversation with myself that probably shouldn't be on the internet. I apologize.

  4. No need to apologize, but I just wanted to clarify on that part because you did make a good point.

    I just realized that our blog post timeline is 2 hours behind? It's 8:01 PM right now and it will probably say 6:01 PM when I post this.

  5. i think this is a very important aspect of cultural evolution that should and could be explored in greater depth; especially because it is so pertinent and relevant across disciplines and industries.

  6. One thing that should be remembered in the evolution of examinations is the group it targets. Exams don't always test for the most capable person. Oftentimes they are written, either purposefully or accidentally, in a way that makes it easier for a certain group and discriminates against others. I guess I'm thinking of the original IQ tests by Binet and Simon, and then the admittance tests for the US military that favored white, Christian men for World War I.

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