Rank Class

Nicholas Lemann's The Big Test
12.02.99 | reviewed by Peter Schrag

The late Albert Shanker, longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers, sometimes made the facetious suggestion that if children were all awarded college diplomas at birth, knowledge would be pursued for its own sake and a great many of the problems of American education would be eliminated. In The Big Test, Nicholas Lemann contends that the grandly conceived SAT, which 1.3 million test-obsessed American high school students now take every year to gain admission to the nation's most selective colleges, has become a flawed instrument in the creation and maintenance of a not-very-admirable, self-serving American meritocracy. Perhaps inadvertently, he seems to be making Shanker's point. Although there is a crush at elite university gates because people believe that admission can confer lifelong prestige, he says, "[T]he idea of having a general-purpose meritocratic elite generated through university admissions is one we should abandon."

It's now 60 years since James Bryant Conant, then the president of Harvard, and his protégé Henry Chauncey, both fully-certified members of the WASP patriciate—what Lemann calls "the Episcopacy"—conceived the great scheme of replacing the old class-based white-shoe admissions systems in the Ivy League with a merit-based examination open to all comers. The hope was to create a new elite of the deserving—something like the "natural aristocracy of virtues and talents" that Thomas Jefferson had visualized. The Big Test is the story of what went wrong.

In Lemann's view, what has evolved is a powerful system, effectively concealed and denied for much of the intervening time, that distorts education, unjustifiably sustains a new class of mandarins, and celebrates a narrow set of IQ-like skills at the expense of a long list of more admirable qualities: creativity, courage, persistence , wisdom, com- mon sense, independence. It has also created a test obsession among the privileged and ambitious and has fed an enormous industry of expensive private cram courses that broadens the inequities between the haves and have-nots in this supposedly fair and open system. For nearly two decades, affirmative action, which was instituted in large part to mitigate the effect of the SAT on low-scoring minorities, helped preserve that system. But with voter initiatives and court decisions rolling back race-based preferences in college admissions, the test—indeed all standardized tests—is now coming under unprecedented pressure, sometimes from the very people who have been its prime beneficiaries.


It's a fascinating and important story—about class, about edu cation, and about the vexing conflicts between "merit" and opportunity in America—in which Lemann's book serves as both chronicle and exhibit. It's also a difficult one for critics to evaluate since most people in the reviewing class probably regard themselves as beneficiaries of the process of which the SAT is a part. That may be particularly true for those of us, Jews especially, who applied to Ivy-type colleges from big-city high schools in the 1940s and 1950s, when none of us could be sure whether there were still restrictive quotas at the admission office and, if so, how stringent they were. Our hope was that the SAT would work precisely as Conant and Chauncey, the first president of the Educational Testing Service (ETS), expected it would: It was a promise that we would get into college on the basis of what we confidently regarded as merit—grades, test scores, extracurricular activities, and whatever other skills and interests we thought we possessed—not parentage, connections, or class. We believed it was progress when colleges like Amherst no longer required students to submit photographs with their admissions applications. Some of us were even dismayed when, in the late 1960s, affirmative action brought ethnicity once more into the calculus. No sooner had the quotas been abolished, Norman Podhoretz complained, than affirmative action was throwing them up again. We were Chaunceyites , and many of us probably still are.

The Big Test makes a strong case for a re-examination, though not a conclusive one. Probably its most compelling part is the story—personal, social, pedagogical, political—of the test's creation: the replacement during the late 1930s and early 1940s of the old essay-based College Board tests with the standardized SAT that's become such a central element not just in college admissions but in our very definition of academic merit. As such, the book is an important part of the social history of the postwar era, and it's full of good stories. We judge the quality of schools on SAT scores—real estate values ride on them, and so, sometimes, do the careers of teachers and principals. In that story, it's hard to know who had the grander hopes: Conant, the Gargantua of this tale, dreamed of using a test to create something bordering on Plato's class of guardians; Chauncey, his Pantagruel, had a vision of a grand, all-encompassing national Census of Abilities to measure everyone on everything and thus establish a thoroughly rationalized system of placing everybody in the most appropriate jobs. Talk about social engineers.

As Lemann points out, although both schemes were conceived to create opportunity on the basis of something other than inheritance and class, those meritocratic hopes not only conflicted fatally with the democratic nature of the larger society, but they also rested on the naïve assumption that having been chosen, the beneficiaries would earnestly devote themselves to the public good.

The success of the SAT was hardly a sure thing at the start. But it took less than a decade for ETS, which was created to run it and the SAT-type tests modeled on it—the LSAT, the GRE, the MCAT—plus the draft-deferment test that ETS created for the Selective Service System during the Korean War, to turn the SAT into a mysterious black box and the testing service into a major force in American education. "You had no option," as Lemann says, "but to put yourself in ETS's hands, not ask questions, accept your scores trustingly—and, by extension, accept the fate to which your scores consigned you." In my era, those who took it were not even allowed to see their scores, much less learn what the scores were based on. Meanwhile ETS insisted, as it sometimes still tries to do, that the scores were immutable: They could not be increased through coaching or drill, and anyone who claimed otherwise was a charlatan. By now, of course, New York's truth- in-testing law has opened things up, and test-prep outfits like Kaplan and Princeton Review have made hash of the claim that SAT scores can't be raised through coaching. They have thus both underlined arguments about the inequities in the SAT process and have intensified the testing-prep hysteria.


Given the misapprehensions with which Conant started, it was probably inevitable that things would go wrong. Early on, Carl Brigham, the Prince ton psychologist who first developed the SAT, had warned that "if the unhappy day ever comes when teachers point their students toward these newer examinations . . . then we may look for the inevitable distortion of education in terms of tests." And long before that, John Adams had cautioned Jefferson that there was danger in creating any kind of aristocracy since even aristocracies of talent and virtue could turn into aristocracies of inheritance or, worse, into monarchy and despotism. We've all seen evidence of the first, and Lemann, who believes that merit-based testing is merely a way for the privileged to use superior schooling, test-preparation, and other assets to pass their advantages on to their children, is clearly worried about the second. (Conant, who opposed the GI Bill after World War II, thought there were already too many people going to college. In his scheme, many would be called; few would be chosen.) And given the inequities in schooling, Lemann's worries are hardly unfounded, although his point is consistently undermined: first, by the apparent success of first-generation Asian students in using the test as Conant intended and, second, by the failure of the children of even affluent middle-class blacks, the prime beneficiaries of affirmative action, to score higher than the children of working-class whites. Lemann attempts to reinforce the point by his passing references to the questionable validity of the SAT as a predictor of college success. But as he himself acknowledges, when the SAT is combined with high school grades, the predictive value, at least for the first year of college, "was certainly enough to make the tests useful" though "hardly commensurate with the magnificent role Chauncey had envisioned for testing."

At this point, more serious questions arise. Other than his vague Shanker-like suggestion that we should abandon the idea of using university admissions to confer prestige, Lemann proposes no real alternatives, and he does not take note of those that already exist. The most selective institutions consider a great many criteria—courses taken, handicaps overcome, artistic talent, special examples of creativity or enter prise—besides the SAT I (the basic standardized test) in choosing their students. While average scores are astronomically high at places like Harvard, Swarthmore, and Princeton, the crush at the door is so great that many highly qualified candidates would be rejected regardless of what criteria are used. Of the 31,000 who apply to Berkeley each year, and of whom the university can admit 8,500, 14,000 have GPAs of 4.0 or higher.

What criteria should be used in making such difficult choices? Occasionally someone suggests setting a threshold and using a lottery, but there are a thousand reasons—political, philosophical, pedagogical—why that won't work. And Lemann does not mention the SAT II exams, once called achievement tests, which assess what students have learned in specific high school courses—history, mathematics, French, English, physics—and which some believe to be fairer and more valid predictors than the SAT I. Unlike the SAT I, the SAT IIs, on which a growing number of admissions directors are now placing greater emphasis, are not heirs of the old IQ tests and bear little of their curse. The omission suggests that finally it's a lot more than the test he doesn't like.

And that in turn raises a more basic question. From the start, Lemann makes an assumption that his own story partially undermines. Did the tests create what he calls "the Mandarinate," or did they merely change the standards of admission—and generally for the better? While tests and other meritocratic criteria may reinforce the belief—illusion? arrogance?—among the elect that their status is deserved, it's also true, as Lemann himself notes, that those who simply inherited their status and titles in the past were generally no less impressed by a sense of their own worth. "Those who like to think of American life as a great race," he writes, "should think of the race as beginning, not ending, when school has been completed. The purpose of schools should be to expand opportunity, not to determine results." And while no one can quarrel with that, much less with his concern for the "bad bottom tier of schools . . . where students don't even learn to read," there is a larger system out there that has always chosen winners and losers regardless of the SAT. Lemann says schools should be taken over "by mayors and governors who ensure that they confer literacy and numeracy on their students," but he is mute on the high school exit exams and other tests that nearly all those mayors and governors are using to enforce accountability—tests that will almost certainly create, if not a submeritocracy, another class of losers.


It's amid those questions that Lemann's chronicle, which began so compellingly, goes astray. He recounts the battle that led to the end of race-based preferences in college admissions (and other sectors) in California, but in doing so, he gets so diverted into the personal and mostly irrelevant stories of two or three of the combatants (all of them, incidentally, on the left) that it's not clear what point he's really making. Both affirmative action and the SAT testing system, as he says, were established without any public discussion, much less democratic consent, and thus have always rested on shaky foundations. What he does not say is that both were created out of similar impulses: to reinforce the legitimacy of the Ivy League and related establishment institutions—corporate law firms, the old-line foundations, the foreign service, and all the rest. All of those centers of power and privilege pre-existed the great testing mystique, and they would no doubt survive its passing. In the meantime, however, it would be hard to argue that the SAT has made entrance to their hallowed precincts any more capricious, unfounded, or unfair than it had been before. Quite the contrary.

Moreover, as Lemann seems to recognize in passing, while some institutions, abetted by the SAT, have become more selective, access to higher education has become wider and easier than ever before. In no society in history have more people gone on to higher education and gotten more help in doing it. We can devoutly wish that they would all be more civic minded and public spirited. But some might also argue that the most vehement of those wishers regard themselves as a class even more select than the mandarins whose attitudes they deplore.

All that being said, this is still an important book, not only for its elegantly told social history but also as both exhibit and instrument in the escalating pressure on the SAT and the institutions that use it. In the past few months, we've seen the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Education try to issue warnings to colleges that if the SAT has any disparate effects on minorities, they'd better be able to justify it as the least discriminatory alternative in their admissions process or face legal action under the civil rights laws. We've even seen the ETS itself play with the idea of issuing a "strivers'" index (an idea first suggested within ETS in the 1970s) that would raise the scores of minorities and the economically disadvantaged and thus lower the relative scores of the white middle class.

Confronted by complaints from colleges and threats of congressional investigations, OCR and ETS have backpedaled with their proposals. But if affirmative action is rolled back further, as it has been in Texas and California, and as it soon may be in Florida and Michigan, and as the selective institutions search for other ways to maintain some reasonable minority representation, the issues raised by Lemann's book will become increasingly intense. We've debated the question of what constitutes merit in a democracy for more than a century—what is merit in college admissions, in the civil service, in politics—and will no doubt continue to do so. Warts and all, The Big Test is certain to be a big part of that.

You may also like