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 …

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