THE BIG TEST: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy

THE BIG TEST: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy

Adam Yarmolinsky

By Nicholas Lemann. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 406 pp. $27

Read Time:
2m 23sec

In The Promised Land (1991), Lemann analyzed poverty and race by looking at the "great migration" of American blacks after World War II. Now he analyzes class and race by looking at college admissions tests and affirmative action. Like his earlier book, The Big Test is full of valuable insights.

A staff writer at the New Yorker, Lemann goes back to the roots of the dreaded SAT (originally the Scholastic Aptitude Test, then the Scholastic Assessment Test). The test originated in Harvard University president James Bryant Conant’s desire to transform the university’s undergraduate body from an aristocracy of birth to an aristocracy of intellect. The author chronicles the 1948 creation of the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the parent of the SAT, which has tried to perform the mutually inconsistent functions of monitoring the test and marketing it. He also recounts the inevitable appearance of an industry that helps students—those who can afford it—boost their test scores, despite early protestations that this was impossible; the research on the correlation between test scores and socioeconomic status, aborted because it would necessarily entail delicate social judgments; and the short, unhappy life of the Measure of Academic Talent, which adjusted SAT scores based on the student’s family background, but only for internal consumption in the ETS research department.

In Lemann’s account of the SAT, this tool designed to eliminate the class system has simply spawned a different but equally rigid hierarchy. He argues that the test (and its graduate school siblings), by directing some young people to the top universities, determines admission to elite status much too early, and does so based on childhood education rather than adult performance. And elite status, once conferred, tends to adhere. He would substitute a more protean system in which "the essential functions and the richest rewards of money and status would devolve to people only temporarily, and strictly on the basis of their performances; there would be as little lifelong tenure on the basis of youthful promise as possible.... The purpose of schools should be to expand opportunity, not to determine results."

Conant discovered a letter in which Thomas Jefferson sounded a meritocratic note, embracing the "pure selection of . . . natural aristoi into the office of government." (In another context—and in a phrase that Conant said he would never be so tactless as to quote— Jefferson proposed that "20 of the best raked from the rubbish and be instructed at the public expense.") Replying to Jefferson’s letter, John Adams wrote: "Your distinction between the aristoi and the pseudo aristoi will not help the matter. I would trust one as soon as the other with unlimited power." In Lemann, Adams’s healthy skepticism lives on.

—Adam Yarmolinsky



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