The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy

The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy

by Nicholas Lemann
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The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy by Nicholas Lemann

The widely acclaimed study of what's gone wrong in American higher education.

What do we know about the history, origin, design, and purpose of the SAT? Who invented it, and why? How did it acquire such a prominent and lasting position in American education? The Big Test reveals the ideas, people, and politics behind a fifty-year-old utopian social experiment that changed this country. Combining vibrant storytelling, vivid portraiture, and thematic analysis, Lemann shows why this experiment did not turn out as planned. It did create a new elite, but it also generated conflict and tension—and America's best educated, most privileged people are now leaders without followers.

Drawing on unprecedented access to the Educational Testing Service's archives, Lemann maintains that America's meritocracy is neither natural nor inevitable, and that it does not apportion opportunity equally or fairly. His important study not only asks profound moral and political questions about the past and future of our society but also carries implications for current social and educational policy. As Brent Staples noted in his New York Times editorial column: "Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts announced that prospective students would no longer be required to submit SAT scores with their applications. . . . Holyoke's president, Joanne Creighton, was personally convinced by reading Nicholas Lemann's book, The Big Test, which documents how the SAT became a tool for class segregation."

All students of education, sociology, and recent U.S. history—especially those focused on testing, theories of learning, social stratification, or policymaking—will find this book fascinating and alarming.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374527518
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 11/28/2000
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 1,360,514
Product dimensions: 6.19(w) x 8.89(h) x 1.25(d)

About the Author

Born in New Orleans in 1954, Nicholas Lemann has been a journalist for more than twenty years. His last book was the prizewinning The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America. He lives in Pelham, New York.

Read an Excerpt

Imagine, an American who had been put to sleep half a century ago, and reawakened on the eve of the millenium—a modern-day Rip Van Winkle or, to update the reference, Austin Powers. Surely one of the most surprising things about the country today would be the peculiar, pervasive frenzy over standardized tests, especially a test for college applicants called the SAT. It is a feature of late 20th-century America that didn't exist in the first half of the century, and that surely would have stunned the people who devised the test.

More than 2 million young people will take the SAT this year, and half as many will take a rival college-admissions test, the ACT. Many of these will pay handsome fees to an industry that has sprung up on the claim that it can improve scores on the test. Universities and high schools are widely judged according to their average SAT scores, and engage in a frenzy of their own to improve them. What students are taught in school, beginning in the primary grades, has been partly reverse-engineered to produce higher scores on the SAT and other standardized tests. Even real-estate values fluctuate with an average SAT scores of the community's schools. The test is widely believed to be the key to admission to a selective college, which in turn is widely believed to be the key to a life of prestige and prosperity. people can't help thinking of the score as a permanent measure of their innate worth.

Their is a bitter national politics of the SAT, which stems from the persistent racial gap in average scores. Handing out opportunities strictly on the basis of test scores generates protests and lawsuits from minority organizations; the opposite practice, de-emphasizing scores to achieve racial diversity, also sets off lawsuits and ballot initiatives. Presidential candidates in America today have to have something to say about all this. The Supreme Court will almost certainly rule during the next couple of years on whether it is constitutional to use standardized-test results to decide who gets jobs and slots in selective schools.

Yet the test has a mysterious quality. Its original name, the Scholastic Aptitude Test, was changed in 1994 to the Scholastic Achievement Test, but now its purveyors prefer simply to use the initials, to avoid discussion of exactly what the test is meant to measure. The story of the test's creation and its rise to totemic importance has never been told—until now. What will be perhaps most surprising about it is how different the social function the test was supposed to perform is from the one it does perform now: a device meant to eliminate an American class system has instead helped create a new one.

In the archives of Harvard University, neatly stacked and tied up in a folder inside a box, is the manuscript of a book that was never finished and never published. It is called "What We Are Fighting to Defend," and was written by Harvard's president James Bryant Conant at the outset of the second world war.

Conant was not just president of Harvard (and before that an outstanding chemist), he was also one of the architects of the modern American educational system, from kindergarten through graduate school; and one of the fathers of the atomic bomb; and a key planner of the reconstruction of Europe after the fall of the Nazis. His views mattered a lot. And the book proposes a sweeping, dramatic, almost utopian remaking of American society from top to bottom, in order to avoid what Conant saw as a national crisis.

Conant believed that in the half century leading up to 1940, the United States had gone from being a classless, democratic society to one that was relentlessly falling under the control of a hereditary aristocracy. When Conant was a young man, the pre-eminent American historian was Frederick Jackson Turner, who spent his career glorifying the open lands of the Old West and bemoaning the closing of the frontier—not because of its endless vistas or its romantic history, but because, in his view, it had provided opportunity to all. But now, Conant, taking his cue from Turner, saw this most precious quality of American society slipping away.
—Partial excerpt from Newsweek Magazine, September 6, 1999

Table of Contents

Foreword to the Paperback Editionvii
Book 1The Moral Equivalent of Religion
1.Henry Chauncey's Idea3
2.The Glass Slipper17
3.Native Intelligence27
4.The Natural Aristocracy42
6.IQ Joe70
7.The Census of One Ability81
8.The Standard Gauge96
9.In the System109
Book 2The Master Plan
11.Rah! Rah! Rah!125
12.Chauncey at Yale140
13.The Negro Problem155
14.The Fall of Clark Kerr166
15.The Invention of the Asian-American174
17.The Weak Spot198
19.The Fall of William Turnbull218
Book 3The Guardians
20.Behind the Curtain235
21.Berkeley Squeezed241
22.Molly's Crisis255
23.The Case of Winton Manning268
24.Surprise Attack278
25.No Retreat293
26.The Fundis and the Realos300
27.Changing Sides309
Afterword to the Paperback Edition: A Real Meritocracy342

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The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
In the Big Test Book II, author Nicholas Lemann describes Clark Kerr¿s Master Plan, So, how does this tie in with Chauncey, Turnbull and ETS? First, we need to understand what the Master Plan is and did. It established the principle that every high school graduate had a legal right to higher education at public expense. This brought higher education to the masses. And, being a realist, Kerr didn¿t want to reshape everyone into anyone in particular, just afford Californians the opportunity to have some free higher education training, often times at a Junior College. Such an opportunity would create a fair way to join the elite. This underlying theme of trying to bridge the gap between providing higher education to the middle class and upper class wound up backfiring. How was this accomplished? How about the fairness of it? Well, providing scholarships was one of the best ways to make it fair. Even though not everyone took advantage of it, there were a large number who wanted to further his or her education and received that newly established financial help. And an example of this backfiring was with the G.I. Bill: there was an influx of soldiers who, surprisingly enough, wanted to receive higher education and so it robbed all monies set aside for this program to be successful and other sources had to be tapped to meet the demand. Keeping this in mind, I could better understand how Chauncey, Turnbull, and ETS related to Kerr¿s Master Plan. With the push for Affirmative Action, Kerr went from glory to fading out from the picture for several reasons, including his desire to not go along with this Affirmative Action federally, but rather create his own policy for entrance into the California universities. Affirmative Action allowed minorities to enter the universities, as in the case of higher education, but these quotas were often preventing the more qualified Caucasians to get into the really top universities. A man named Marcus DeFunnis felt he needed to sue Washington University after being denied entrance due to the fact they needed to meet the quota of Affirmative Action that year. Soon it was time for Chauncey to retire and for Turnbull to take over ETS. However, Chauncey¿s flair for being on the front lines and fixing problems was missed, and Turnbull had some big shoes to fill in this new role as the new leader. How was he able to deal with the stress? I thought he mistakenly turned to alcohol, as many do with such pressures. But Turnbull knew the business, so if he had stuck to his guns then he wouldn¿t have needed to express his depressing attitude in the poem he wrote at the beginning of Chapter 19. In conclusion, The Big Test had really solid information, and I felt it was a good one to read because of the many historically significant events that happened in our country over the last century.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Tracey EDUC 506B June 28, 2002 The Big Test: Book 1 Review The Moral Equivalent of Religion This book has everything one needs in a sizzling summer read. Don't be looking for light-hearted fiction here. This is a story of heroes and villains, sex and sadness, and backstabbing and betrayal. (There's not any sex in it-I just put that in to get your attention.) The Big Test, Book I: The Moral Equivalent of Religion is the historical story of testing in America as seen through the eyes of main character Henry Chauncey. Like every good Groton/Harvard graduate of his time, Chauncey is white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant. He does vary from the norm somewhat in that he is poor. He discovers the wonder of mental testing and gets as hooked as any chocolaholic. He just can't get enough of that testing thing. His dream is that testing will uncover the best and brightest to be college educated to enhance democracy and justice. (Well, Mr. Chauncey can you please explain to me why my 31ACT son flunked out of college his sophomore year?) Chauncey knew that testing would direct each person to his most appropriate place of service to his nation and full use of his own talents. (I am convinced the man is sincere, but one must wonder from which planet he was dropped.) Other heroes emerge in the story. Stanley H. Kaplan is a young Jew from Brooklyn, New York, who graduated from high school second in this class. He was only 17 years old at the time and had accomplished this in 3 years. Even with these stellar achievements, Kaplan's application for admission was rejected from five medical schools. He turned adversity in triumph by starting a tutoring business that became one of the largest in the country. Other characters in the book are admirable but not granted hero status here. By far, the greatest heroes in the book are the silent soldiers who were sentenced to death by testing. 2 The evils of testing are seen repeatedly. Carl Campbell Brigham administered army tests during WWII. This villainous character rated 'the 3 white races' in descending order: Alpine, Nordic, and Mediterranean. (My numerous Mediterranean relatives and I are certainly not happy with Mr. Brigham.) Another whose actions were somewhat less than honorable was Devereux Josephs. Mr. Josephs holds a lofty position in the Carnegie Foundation. (Remember money talks.) He bribes George Zook, head of the American Council of Education to relinquish his GRE test to Education Testing System, the company that Chauncey heads. For all his testing expertise, Chauncey flunks out of marriage. His wife demands a divorce. At this time, Chauncey asks that tender question, 'Can I still keep my job if I get a divorce?' (Yes, he can.) Chauncey travels to Wyoming to establish residency there, since it is easier to obtain a divorce in that state. Always in the right place at the right time, Chauncey meets and falls in love with a young woman in Wyoming. Of course, they consult a psychologist to make sure that it is love, and probably takea few valid, reliable tests to be sure. A third woman in Chauncey's life is Isabel Briggs Myers, who produced the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test. She and Chauncey had a working relationship that spanned two decades. Henry Chauncey then told Myers that he would not publish her test anymore. (It might be interesting to note that more people take the MBTI than take the SAT. Wrong financial move, Mr. Smart Guy.) The people at the helms of both the Educational Testing System and American College Test want the rich untapped market of California. The population is exploding as the number of universities keeps growing. Which company will win the Sunshine State? I'll give you a hint: 3 ETS has a branch in Berkeley and the President of the University of California is on the ETS Board of Trustees. (Are we surprised?) Maybe you are wondering wh
Guest More than 1 year ago
Having the background of Book One really helped to put the pieces together in Book Two. I found Book Two so interesting, I had to go ahead and read Book Three just to see what was going to happen. I am amazed at how little I knew about a lot of the events discussed in the book, and yet I lived during some of these very events while they were going on. I guess culture does matter as to what a person learns. Book Two opened with Clark Kerr rising to the top at Berkeley. While he was there, he helped to see the passage of 63 resolutions into law that would enable all to an education, but they would be ranked through a test. The top scores would go to the top universities, then the colleges, then the Junior Colleges. He made Berkeley a school that was available to the 'cream of the crop' and the faculty was hand picked and highly regarded. During this same time, Sam Chauncey was attending Yale and elevating himself there. Sam chose Yale to make a name for himself so he would not have to follow in his father's footsteps. Most men who attended Yale at this time were automatically given jobs upon graduation, whether a part of their father's business, a banker, etc. With these standards already in place, no wonder when Howe came in a fired the whole admissions staff there was an uproar. All sects of people were brought into the school and many 'sons of Yale' were not admitted. It took Brewster the remainder of his career to straighten the whole mess out. While Yale was going through its own problems, higher education was finding out a discomforting bit of news. The tests excluded Negros from schools and jobs. This is not something that was thought about. When the Coleman report was complete, he found that the test scores had nothing to do with the schools, or funding, but that student performance was heavily influenced by family rather than school. So culture and background does matter! Here is where Affirmative Action arose and began getting a foothold. Negros ended up getting more jobs and promotions, even though their test scores did not merit that. Now that the Civil Rights Act is in full swing, protests began. Clark Kerr having to leave town, left Edward Strong in charge of the university. Unfortunately, he did not mediate well and sit-ins and riots erupted. Things were out of control and the blame fell on Kerr. Ultimately he lost his job when he would not resign. While racial tensions continued to increase, those in the elite universities continued to pave the way for their futures. Three different elite groups were competing for power: the mandarins, lifters and talents. The mandarins were mainly focused on through the remainder of the book, as we followed the lives of several of these individuals. These particular individuals are considered minorities since they are women and Asian-Americans. The Supreme Court at this time is also playing a crucial role in Affirmative Action. With white males not able to get into the university of their choice, even though their test scores were higher than Negros who applied and were accepted, the Supreme had to begin making stands on certain issues. In 1970, Henry Chauncey retired and Turnball took over. This was not a good time to be in charge. There were many attacks on ETS and the views of ETS started changing. Old tests had to be shown, which meant that now students could truly study for the test. People with disabilities are able to get special concessions and there was a pressure on all students to do well. Now with testing in question, Affirmative Action in question, and the future of our nation and its stance on these critical issues, people would have to figure out where they stood on the issues. I have never had a problem with testing and still do not. I do, however, have a deeper understanding of the difficulties that are brought on due to culture and backgrounds. I do not know how one goes about changing a cycle that has been
Guest More than 1 year ago
Book One: The Moral Equivalent of Religion The Big Test by Nicholas Lemann provides a very thorough description of the history of standardized testing in America. The first section, entitled ¿The Moral Equivalent of Religion¿ explains the importance of testing, although I am not sure how ¿moral¿ the whole idea of testing was in the beginning. How can testing people in order to place them in societal roles be moral? Mr. Lemann chose Henry Chauncey as his main character. At first, I saw Chauncey as a very ambitious young man who was very excited about testing. The more I read, though, the more I dislike his ideas. While Chauncey was young and ambitious, his utopian idea of testing everyone on everything and then putting them in their right place in society is a bit frightening. On top of that vision, he also was sure that everyone would graciously accept his placement. After reading these chapters and listening to other class members¿ thoughts and ideas, I think Henry Chauncey¿s vision resembled Adolph Hitler¿s a little too closely. Chauncey¿s ideals really did not mesh with the American dream of being able to move up through the social classes, which was the main reason so many immigrants headed for America. Book One consists of the first ten chapters. These chapters give the reader almost more information than can be processed. I found myself having to go back and reread sections because I could not remember what I had read. There were so many people introduced throughout these 150 pages that I had trouble keeping them all straight. I found myself looking back to see who was at Harvard and who was at Princeton, who favored achievement testing and who favored aptitude testing, who worked for ETS and who worked for ACE. Mr. Lemann obviously did not want to exclude anyone from his narrative. No one can say that he did not do his research. This book, although difficult to follow at times, is well written. By writing the history in narrative form and making the characters come to life, it is slightly easier to read than a history text book. The amount of research that Mr. Lemann had to do with the ETS archives is immeasurable. I can not imagine the determination and patience it must have taken to read through all of that information. I must admit, I am not a big fan of this book. I find it a struggle to read because I am not overly interested in the history and it is a bit difficult to follow. I do have to give Mr. Lemann credit because he has taken a very complex piece of educational history and tried to make it a story. I hope as I continue with the second and third sections that my attitude about the book will improve. Through class discussions, my understanding does become clearer. I just hope that the next section entitled ¿The Master Plan¿ does not resemble Hitler¿s plan for ¿The Master Race¿. Book Two: The Master Plan The Big Test by Nicholas Lemann is separated into three sections. The first section, entitled ¿The Moral Equivalent of Testing¿, gives a complete history of standardized testing. The second section, entitled ¿The Master Plan¿, goes in a slightly different direction. Its main focus is affirmative action and its effect on American society. Henry Chauncey is no longer the main character as he was in Book One. In Book Two, many more new characters are thrown into the mix. Again, I found myself drowning in a sea of characters. The first person introduced was Clark Kerr, who was the head of the University of California. He was made famous by the Master Plan that was signed into law in April of 1960. After Kerr comes Sam Chauncey, who was introduced in Book One. Starting with chapter 13, the story changes to focus on affirmative action. I found it interesting how Mr. Lemann described the contradiction concerning the African Americans. On one hand, they scored low on tests because their education had been substandard. One the other hand, the Civil Right
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Big Test by N. Lemann gives the historical background of the first hundred years of the ETS. It also identifies with its founders and evolving lifestyles as it unfolds the truths of testing. The book was a good tool to teach a class on sociological perspectives of education because it created many inquiries into the resolution of testing. Though it was difficult to follow because of the many facets involved, each one spiraled into another. As the participants revealed their roles in the ETS, the reader gained yet another side of the ETS's history. My personal view is that testing itself doesn't take into account the students' personality or drive for life. Personality is a major factor of one's success.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This gleaming book shows us for the first time the ideas, the people, and the politics behind the fifty-year-old system that determines the course of Americans' lives. The first book deals with the history and presumptions behind the present educational testing process as a selection method for determining access to higher education, and is by far the more important. The second book deals with the electoral process surrounding the affirmative action initiatives in California, and while interesting, is actually something of a cul-de-sac in proving what on the surface appears to be Lemann's main thesis. It began as a utopian experiment--launched by James Bryant Conant, president of Harvard University, and Henry Chauncey, head of the brand-new Educational Testing Service (ETS)--to use the then-young science of intelligence testing to assess and sort American students fairly and dispassionately in order to create a new democratic elite that would lead postwar America to progress, strength, and prosperity. Hardly anyone else before Nicholas Lemann has gained access to the archives of the all-powerful ETS, and none has understood the significance of this extraordinary drama. But now, in a notable synthesis of vivacious storytelling, stunning portraiture, and thematic analysis, he reveals the secret history of this major effort to unseat the quasi-hereditary male white elite that had run America. Lemann's narrative goes across a huge range of subjects, places, and times--from Cambridge and wartime Washington to contemporary California, from the think tanks and policy centers where educational testing was invented to the schools and class rooms where the test forms are handed out. And he describes the consequences, for individual lives and for society as a whole, of this effort to create a new meritocracy. For the utopian experiment didn't turn out as planned. It created a new elite but also generated conflict and tension, particularly over the issue of race, and America is now a society whose best-educated, most privileged. Lemann shows that this American meritocracy is neither natural nor inevitable, and it does not apportion opportunity equally or fairly. The Big Test is superb social history and analysis that not only explains the origins of the inadequate system we are all living with but asks profound moral and political questions about what makes for a good society, and what condition the United States is in today. Lemann devotes the first third of the book to the tragicomic history of the SAT and how it shook up the old elite. The test as we know it got its start when the president of Harvard, James Bryant Conant, grew disgusted with the lazy bluebloods populating his campus in the 1930s. Weren't there smarter, more eager kids out there? Conant believed in what Thomas Jefferson described as a 'natural aristocracy' of superior people 'raked from the rubbish.' How could Conant rake up some of that talent for Harvard, people who could then go on to lead the country more competently than the traditional aristocracy of well-born men? Well, it so happens that when Conant was asking those questions, America was developing its first IQ tests, and there was great enthusiasm about their ability to order and categorize people rationally. Conant fell upon the idea with missionary zeal. The IQ test, which evolved into the SAT, would be an instrument that reordered American life. It evolved from the Army Alpha IQ test, which was developed and given to recruits during World War I. The Scholastic Aptitude Test, which supposedly measured innate mental capacity, was first administered in 1926. In the 1930s, Harvard University president James Bryant Conant promoted it as a democratic way to select students for university scholarships in the hope that they would become public servants. After the Educational Testing Service was set up in 1947, more colleges required it. I don't accept the premise of an intelligence quotient--that
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book should be read by anyone concerned with our educational system, and anyone (especially students)in that system. The subject - measurement of talents for entry into our so-called meritocracy - is important. The reader will find this book stimulating, well written, upsetting, and hard to put down. At times, however, the narrative moves somewhat inexplicably from testing and meritocracy into details of affirmative action struggles. Though interesting and well presented, it is not always clear why affirmative action gets so such detailed attention (there certainly are many other facets of meritocracy). To get past this, and generally improve comprehension of the book and its worthy purposes, I suggest reading the 'Afterward' three times: (1) after reading Chapter 1 or a few of the early chapters, (2) after finishing Book 2, before immersion in details of the affirmative action struggles, and of course (3) at the end. In any case, do read this book.