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The Twisted Path to the Top

Nicholas Lemann’s engrossing history of the infamous SAT—once known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, but now known only by its initials—raises a lot of questions to which none of us have very convincing answers. The Big Test begins with the bizarre tale of how the Educational Testing Service, a private company based on the outskirts of Princeton, a company with no official (that is to say, with no governmental) backing, came to determine which American students get into the best universities and colleges, and therefore who gets the most attractive jobs. Since its heyday in the 1950s, and with almost no public discussion, ETS has laid down a system that dictates the way high school students estimate their success, encourages the public to think of some ethnic groups as successes and others as failures, and imposes extraordinary social burdens on higher education. It is no small achievement for a not-for-profit company. Whether it is one to admire is another matter.

The second half of The Big Test follows the higher education system that the new testing culture created through the discovery of black educational disadvantage and the growth of affirmative action, and it goes on to discuss the backlash against affirmative action that spawned California’s Proposition 209. That measure, approved in a 1996 statewide referendum, made it illegal for public colleges to take race and ethnicity into account in their decisions on admissions. Its backers thought they had mortally wounded affirmative action; in fact, as Lemann shows, they merely demonstrated one more time that in American politics there are few simple answers.

In its method, The Big Test is very like The Promised Land (1991), Lemann’s moving account of the black migration from the Deep South into the industrial North. The narrative of The Big Test is carried along by a string of life stories, and if none of them is quite as interesting as those in The Promised Land, they once more display Nicholas Lemann’s talent for distilling social analysis out of personal history.

The author may be mildly frustrated that reaction to The Big Test has mostly ignored the extraordinary story of the rise of ETS, and has concentrated entirely on the virtues and vices of the SAT itself; but this is not to be wondered at. The Big Test raises innumerable questions of the sort that torment parents, teachers, students, and administrators—about the purpose of education, about its beneficiaries and casualties, and about our understanding of “merit.” Many of these questions are familiar, but some hit the reader with something of a shock. The most familiar question was given widespread publicity five years ago in The Bell Curve by Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein. The question was: Why do black Americans score relatively badly on IQ tests when they are young, on the SAT in their teens, and on the LSAT and MCAT when applying to law and medical schools? It is not surprising that much of the reaction to The Big Test has again focused on the “Black-White Test Gap,” and therefore on the merits and deficiencies of affirmative action.

Another question is less familiar from the headlines, but must strike anyone who is curious about international differences in higher education. Why does the United States alone select students for college on the basis of tests that measure a narrow aptitude for taking that sort of test, which puts a premium on quick reading and quick problem-solving, rather than on the basis of demonstrated achievement in the subjects that students propose to study? Britain has an advanced school-leaver’s examination, the “A Level,” which tests students’ grasp of such subjects as history, English literature, and science. European countries have similar achievement tests, such as the baccalauréat, the Abitur, and the Laurea. Most English-speaking countries resemble Britain; and even Canada is more like Europe than it is like the US. When the SAT is attacked on educational grounds, it is the contrast with these European examinations that many critics have in mind.

Some unfamiliar questions are perhaps not asked in the US because the answers seem too obvious. Given the obvious unsatisfactoriness of the SAT, why is there no national school-leaving examination that could settle the question of whose students knew what? Why is there not even the outline of a national curriculum by which we might define a decently educated student? Why do we so rarely challenge the ideas that meritocracy is desirable and that the SAT and its pre-graduate school relatives define merit? Why do teachers and parents not ask more searching questions about the intellectual effects of “teaching to the test” (not only the SAT but other multiple-choice exams), which is the pedagogical style that runs throughout the American education system and even into graduate school? Lemann does not answer these questions in any detail, but they haunt the narrative of The Big Test and make the book much more than the story of how ETS came to dominate the world of college admissions testing.


Nicholas Lemann rightly begins by reminding us of the larger historical picture of which the rise of testing is part, and of the social consequences of that rise.

A thick line runs through the country, with people who have been to college on one side of it and people who haven’t on the other. This line gets brighter all the time. Whether a person is on one side or the other is now more indicative of income, of attitudes, and of political behavior than any other line one might draw: region, race, age, religion, sex, class.

Getting to college, or more exactly getting into an elite college, is the great aim of teenagers and their parents; and the great obstacle students have to get over is the assorted tests of success in school that lie in their way. Such a system does more than dictate who goes to which undergraduate school. It defines and selects an elite, the closest thing the United States possesses to a ruling class, “with its own mores and beliefs and tastes and folkways.”

The elite that has prospered in the world of the SAT, the LSAT for law school, and the MCAT for medical school is not the elite that the proselytizers for the testing movement hoped to create—that is to say, it is not an elite notable for its dispassionate concern for the public good. Nor is it an elite that everyone else accepts unquestioningly as the nation’s leaders in commerce, industry, law, politics, and learning. But it is an elite, and it is the creation of two men above all—James B. Conant, president of Harvard, and Henry Chauncey, a Harvard administrator who became the first president of ETS. It was Conant’s patronage that put Chauncey in a position to create a meritocracy, and after a fashion Chauncey did it. He could not have done it if there had not been powerful social pressures on his side, and those pressures would have resulted in some sort of examination-driven higher edu-cation system—but it would have been quite unpredictably different without Henry Chauncey. Nicholas Lemann has been given the run of Chauncey’s archive—Chauncey is still alive at a vigorous ninety-seven—and it is his remarkable career that is the subject of the first half of The Big Test.

Conant and Chauncey were not in fact of one mind about what merit consisted in. James Conant was what Marxists used to describe as a class traitor. He was a member of an elite whose political and economic power he deplored. He was president of Harvard for twenty years, but he thought badly of the faculty, believing that upper-class literary scholars were favored over world-class scientists. He thought even worse of the idle rich young men upon whom the literary scholars spread what cultivation they could.

The pre-war educational scene was, of course, almost unimaginably different from what it has become. Although the US sent more teenagers to high school than any other country in the world, fewer than half of them graduated. And although far more Americans went to some form of college than their peers in any other country—about a fifth of the age group—only one in five stayed long enough to get a degree. Most state colleges engaged in something close to remedial education. Open admissions was not a phrase but it was a fact. To the extent that there was selection of students, it was the result of the mass departure of unprepared or unenthusiastic entrants after a semester or two. Even at Ivy League schools, entry standards were hardly demanding, especially for graduates of established preparatory schools. Just as an upper-class Englishman could put his name down for Christ Church because his father and grandfather had been there before, the graduates of Groton could put their names down for Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. As Lemann says, they might be encouraged not to attend if they were “a little slow,” but great intelligence was neither expected nor encouraged.

It was essentially a WASP world, and a boy’s world, and Conant detested it. It was at odds with the social values that had made America the inspiration of liberals and democrats throughout the nineteenth century. He “took it as a given,” Lemann writes,

that the essence of American greatness was a quality that Alexis de Tocqueville had remarked upon early in the nineteenth century: social equality, of a kind that would be unthinkable in any other country. Because the United States didn’t have a rigid class system, it could take full advantage of its people’s talents and at the same time generate intense social cohesion across a range of physical space and a variety of ethnic origin that elsewhere would have been considered insuperable.

The closing of the frontier had created a WASP aristocracy at odds with the true America. What made the situation worse was that at the other end of the social spectrum, industrialization had created an urban proletariat whose instincts were defensive and collectivist and inimical to a culture of individual opportunity.

But Conant was also a passionate believer in the meritocratic views that had been the common coin of European progressives ever since the French Revolution. The new world needed a leadership different from anything the ancien régime had needed; it was to be scientifically trained and managerially effective; it could only be selected by an educational process that tested for brains and competence at every point. When Conant chose him, Henry Chauncey was merely an assistant dean at Harvard, but with Conant’s encouragement, he became an enthusiast for testing after Conant’s own heart. When America went into World War II, the US armed services got into intelligence testing as they had done in World War I. In 1943, Chauncey was recruited by his good friend John Stalnaker, the vice president of the College Entrance Examination Board, described by Lemann as a

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