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Review of Nicholas Lemann, The Big Test> (New York:
Farrar, Straus
and Giroux, 1999). The Weekly Standard,November 22, 1999, pp. 39-40.

The Weekly Standard

November 22, 1999

Test Ban?

How the SATs have shaped-and misshaped-modern

© Copyright Mary Campbell Gallagher 1999. All rights reserved.

James B. Conant was president of Harvard from 1933 to 1953, a chemist by training who--through the influence of his books on education--helped create the huge, comprehensive American high school. But he also helped create the modern American college, for it's thanks in part to Conant that the admissions offices in selective colleges no longer look primarily to prep-school polish and character. They look instead to a number of factors, always including the prospective freshman's score on the SAT--the "Scholastic Aptitude Test," as it was called until the name was corrected to the "Scholastic Assessment Test" in 1994.

Conant was inspired by an 1813 letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, arguing that "there is a natural aristocracy among men," based on virtue and talent, and that these men should be selected for "the offices of government." In the late 1930s, the newly developed SAT, a multiple-choice test of verbal and mathematical abilities, seemed to Conant the way to discover for Harvard some midwestem diamonds in the rough.

Thus, when the Educational Testing Service was founded in 1948 to administer the SAT, Conant installed as its first president an assistant Harvard dean named Henry Chauncey. And ETS grew rapidly, by talent and guile, putting rival tests out of business, spreading across the country, and expanding its range with the Law School Aptitude Test (LSAT) and a series of other tests. When, in 1968, the University of California system began requiring SAT scores from its applicants, ETS had captured the largest college market in the United States--and American education has never been the same.

This is the story Nicholas Lemann sets out to tell in The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy. And his thesis is that Chauncey and his successors at ETS managed--without public consultation or debate--to turn the SAT into the primary gateway to money, power, and prestige in America.

Lemann has certainly found a fascinating topic. Americans are obsessed with SAT scores, and the test preparation industry has grown enormously since it was discovered that the test does not, in fact, measure aptitude and so is coachable. But you'd think that the most interesting thing about the history of the SAT is the fact that students' scores--despite the money we spend preparing our children for the test--have been trending downwards for decades; American high-school education, particularly in mathematics and science, is inadequate by any measure.

Despite his title, however, Lemann doesn’t focus on secrets and certainly not on education. A Harvard-educated journalist, author of The Fast Track and, more recently, The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America, Lemann uses The Big Test mostly to pursue his interest in strivers and social climbers. He calls the graduates of America’s selective colleges "Mandarins"; they go on to prosperous careers in law and the other professions, including journalism. His "Lifers" are career employees in the government and corporations. And his "Talents" are entrepreneurs and artists. Since World War II, he says, we have developed a system of elite colleges that produce the Mandarins, inside a larger educational system of mass opportunity that produces the Lifers and the Talents,

In his early chapters--by far the best part of The Big Test--Lemann traces the fascinating history of the SAT, drawing on extensive interviews (including with Henry Chauncey himself, now in his nineties) and on material in ETS's archives. But in the middle chapters, The Big Test suddenly turns to the question of affirmative action. According to Lemann, affirmative action represents the collision between the meritocratic principle and the principle of equal opportunity. As Lemann does not explain fully, when the selective colleges started increasing the number of minority applicants in the late 1960s and early 1970s under affirmative action, the use of the SAT made deficiencies in the education of black applicants startlingly measurable. Only at Harvard, which has its pick of minority applicants, do the average scores of preferentially admitted black students come within 95 points (out of 1,600 possible) of the average scores of white students.

Then, in his final chapters, Lemann sketches, sometimes tediously, young Mandarins attempting to defeat challenges to affirmative action.

The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy
by Nicholas Lemann
Farrar, Straus and Girous, 406pp., $27

The regents of the University of California voted in 1995 to abolish affirmative action programs, and in 1996, voters passed the California Civil Rights Initiative (Proposition 209), outlawing affirmative action in state government. Lemann's narrative follows a lawyer, Molly Munger (like this reviewer, a 1974 graduate of Harvard Law School, in the first class to consist of more than 10 percent women), as she becomes an activist in the failed opposition to Proposition 209.

The Big Test is institutional history and policy argument cast in the literary form of a novel. Relying on his stories and vignettes, Lemann provides only weak support--or none at all--for either the sweeping generalizations about the importance of the SAT with which he begins his book or the policy conclusions with which he ends it. He says repeatedly that the SAT is the gateway to money, power, and prestige in America. Readers who work through the book will have reflected in the meantime, however, that few of America's billionaires, elected local officials, and celebrities ever seem to have relied upon their SAT scores to introduce them to success. Even Lemann sees it, remarking toward the end of Big Test that "If any one category of people ran America it was the Talents." What happened to the promised revelations about selective colleges and "money, power, and prestige"? Lemann merely concludes that the high-scoring Mandarins are not, in fact, the new aristocrats that Conant imagined.
© Copyright Mary Campbell Gallagher 1999. All rights reserved.

But Lemann is right that a good score on the SAT opens for students the chance for greater money, power, and prestige. And the more overstated and dramatic he makes his case, the more motivation there is for affirmative action. Thus Lemann sees the struggle over Proposition 209 in California entirely through the eyes of its Mandarin opponents. Supporters are either uninformed or lack integrity. Glynn Custred, one of the leaders of the campaign for Proposition 209, taught in "the chilly Siberia of the Mandarin culture" at California State University at Hayward. Ward Connerly, the black businessman who sponsored the voter initiative, did whatever the governor told him to do.

The truth is, of course, that there are many people who support the advancement of minorities and who nonetheless dislike affirmative action--claiming, among other things, that so long as we rely on affirmative action to paste over the problem of lower minority SAT scores, we will not force ourselves to improve the grade schools and high schools that minority students attend. Certainly the admissions policies of America's colleges have real consequences in lower education. When the University of North Carolina reinstituted strong college preparatory requirements in 1988, the need for remedial classes at the college plummeted. Even Lemann observes that when the University of California stopped supervising the curriculum of high schools, standards slipped--which then required the university to use the SAT to distinguish among applicants.

At one time, the Ivy League set clear standards for the college-preparatory curriculum in American high schools. Candidates had to present four years of Latin, three years of mathematics, and so on. The growth of the sciences in the university curriculum and the demands of the professional schools exerted the first pressure to reduce these requirements. (Harvard abolished the Latin requirement for science students in 1912.) And the adoption of the elective system, first at Harvard and then elsewhere, eventually shattered colleges' command over what high schools taught. And since the SAT is not a full achievement test, colleges can use it only to weigh one student's promise against another's. They cannot use it to stop the downward drift of real achievement that has been occurring for a long time.

For all his promises of shocking revelations about the selection of our meritocracy, Lemann challenges almost nothing in the American university system. He criticizes the SAT, but he loves the greasy pole of success. He scorns the kind of old-fashioned authority exercised by Henry Chauncey, but he admires the research universities Chauncey nurtured. It seems not to occur to Lemann, however, that our German-sryle universities--with their huge menus of elective courses, their armies of teaching assistants, and their reliance on a multiple-choice test for entrance--are short-changing undergraduates. The index to The Big Test contains no entry for "liberal arts."

Lemann is surely right that the SAT has failed to fulfill James B. Conant's plan to identify Jefferson's "natural aristocracy" of talent and virtue. But that doesn't make it right that our elite colleges and universities seem to have given up on looking at the character of their applicants and nurturing the full humanity of their students.
Mary Campbell Gallagher is a writer in New York City, where she owns a bar-exam preparation business.
© Copyright Mary Campbell Gallagher 1999. All rights reserved.