Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Book Review: Scored

Originally published on May 30, 2012.

 
I have been wanting to read Lauren McLaughlin's Scored ever since I first heard about it, so I was thrilled to run across a copy of it in a shelf display at my local library. This book tells the story of a dystopian society that doesn't seem too far out of the realm of modern possibility.

Imani LeMonde has lived her entire life in a "scored" society. Aside from the very rich and social outcasts who choose to "opt out" of the program, every person is assigned a score, based on their intelligence, their behavior, and their social interactions. Data for these scores is gathered from electronic "eyeballs" that provide constant surveillance of pretty much every public area. New scores are posted every month for students. Sometimes the changes are incremental, shifting just a point or two, but other times, they can be life-altering. As students approach the end of their senior year, presssure to increase scores becomes even more intense, as score determines whether students are bound for college (scholarhips included), the work force, the military, or abject poverty.

Social life is based around "score gangs." If your score changes, so does your gang, no questions asked. Even speaking to students of a lower score can result in the lowering of your own, and socalizing with an unscored.... well, that's unthinkable. Imani's score of a 92 is the result of a lifetime of hard work, but she does have one score-negative habit: continuing to socialize with her best friend, Cady, whose score is only in the 70s. But years ago, they made a pact to stick together no matter what happened with their scores, and in spite of the fact that genuine friendship is pretty much an outdated concept. But then Cady becomes romantically involved with an unscored, and her own score plummets. In spite of the fact that Cady kept that relationship a secret from Imani in order to protect her, Imani's own score sinks 30 points, a hit from which she will likely not be able to recover before final scores are posted and her future is determined. Her dreams of college are now an impossibility and her future seems dreadfully bleak.... unless she can find some way to quickly and dramatically raise her score.

At the same time, Imani's unorthodox history teacher tells his students about a brand-new scholarship opportunity and assigns them to write essays for it. The unscored students will write in defense of the score; the scored students will argue against it. An unscored student named Diego approaches Imani about collaborating on the project. This leaves Imani with quite the conundrum: does she collaborate with Diego in order to increase her chances at the scholarship, since otherwise her college plans will be impossible? Or will just talking to him lower her own score even further? Or is there some kind of third option that can allow her to use the system to her own advantage?

As both a teacher and a parent, I find the concept of the "score" to be fascinating. So much time in our own current school system is taken up with standardized testing, assigning students a myriad of various scores that will, in various ways, determine their futures. A full month of Bryn's kindergarten year was taken up with days of full and partial testing, establishing baseline scores, and determining eligibility for various programs for first grade. And that's in kindergarten. And then there's the ISTEP, the SAT, No Child Left Behind, and the basic achievement and competition for classroom grades. McLaughlin's novel discusses this legacy of scores. Given what we subject our children to right now, it's not all that farfetched to think that "scoring" will continue to evolve until it reaches an even more life-determining level of power.

In the novel, the creators of the score argue that humans inherently want to be watched and evaluated--all the way up from the child on the playground who shouts, "Mommy, look at me!" to the people who volunteer to be on reality tv (and all of those of us who watch it). They further argue that the score is an answer to many of the failures of modern society. One creator states, "We saw the inability of social programs, including public education, to eradicate poverty, and we decided it was a failure of technology. . . . Here we had this incredible tool at our disposal with the Internet. We had search. We had wikis. We had all the social networking tools. We had micro-lending and personalized charity. But poverty wasn't going away. If anything, the Internet was widening the gap between rich and poor" (page 118).

The novel presents a lot of fascinating arguments both for and against a "scored" society, mostly developed in the ongoing debates between Imani and Diego. Even though it's a young adult book with a somewhat basic storyline of friendship and romance, this one gave me a lot to think about. I was left unsatisfied by the ending, as I felt like the story just stopped somewhat abruptly and relied on a short epilogue as its only closure. But the ending doesn't answer many of the reader's burning questions about the book's characters, it does leave the reader to grapple with the essential questions raised in the text and reach their own conclusions about society's many hierarchies and systems of ranking. I definitely recommend Scored as a fascinating (and quick) read.

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