Cover image for The big test : the secret history of the American meritocracy
The big test : the secret history of the American meritocracy
Lemann, Nicholas.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.
Physical Description:
viii, 406 pages ; 24 cm
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LB3051 .L44 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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"[An] engaging, enlightening historical analysis of the idea of the SAT, dramatized by stories of the people who designed it and the students who benefited from it, and . . . recent battles over standardized testing and affirmative action". "The Boston Globe".

Author Notes

Nicholas Lemann, a native of New Orleans, developed an interest in journalism during his teenage years. This eagerness to write was coupled with a keen interest in United States history and literature. He pooled his curiosities, earning a degree in American literature and history from Harvard University in 1976.

Journalism became Lemann's main occupation, as he built his writing career through working for the Washington Monthly, Texas Monthly, and the Washington Post. In 1983, he joined the Atlantic Monthly staff. His love for American history peaked with the publication of his commentary on the African-American migration to Chicago in search of jobs and a better life.

Lemann's book, The Promised Land, captured the 1991 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in journalism. His articles span many interests, from book reviews and political topics to travel stories about the Catskill Mountains and other natural wonders. He contributes many articles, not only to the Atlantic Monthly but to several other magazines as well.

Nicholas Lemann, his wife Dominique Browning, and their two sons live in New York City.

(Bowker Author Biography) Nicholas Lemann was born in New Orleans in 1954. He has been a journalist for more than twenty years. His last book was the prizewinning The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America. He lives in Pelham, New York.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

It sounds incredibly boring: the history of a test, for pity's sake! But the revered and reviled Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) was never simply a test. Journalist Lemann--whose Promised Land (1991) addressed the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North--here infuses a potentially dry topic with life and energy by capturing the commitment of the crusaders who made testing an essential rite of passage and by clarifying their crusade's internal contradictions and the unintended consequences those contradictions produced. During the '30s, at Harvard, and more intensely after World War II, James Bryant Conant hoped to replace the nation's aristocracy of money (old versus new) with one based on intelligence and competence. The assistant dean who helped him broaden Harvard's admissions policies, Henry Chauncey, a testing booster, headed the Educational Testing Service from its inception in 1948 until 1970; Conant initially chaired the nonprofit organization's board. But problems as old as eugenics and as current as "disparate impact" complicated use of what amounted to a (widely discredited) IQ test as the main tool in sorting the U.S. population and defining individuals' educational and economic opportunities. Lemann follows the troubled course of this vision of meritocracy through California's Proposition 209 campaign and other recent affirmative action battles. A fascinating subject, fascinatingly studied. --Mary Carroll

Publisher's Weekly Review

In a country obsessed with educational opportunity, the principal institution for overseeing the distribution of access to higher education, the Educational Testing Service, was founded in "an atmosphere of intrigue, corruption, competition, and disorder." So contends Lemann (The Promised Land) in this enthralling, detailed story of how the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) became enshrined in U.S. culture. Although the idealistic, patrician pioneers of testing may have wished to displace the entitlements of birth and wealth for what they saw as the more democratic entitlements of scholastic aptitude, at the end of the 20th century "their creation looks very much like what it was intended to replace." This story is compelling in itself, but Lemann's exploration of how the politics of American meritocracy turn on the issue of race makes his history absolutely indispensable to current affirmative action and education debates. Lemann's treatment of the 1996 battle over California's anti-affirmative action Proposition 209 convincingly shows how what is nominally a democratic process actually works. The current crises in American education have deep roots: "America had channeled all the opportunity through the educational system and then had failed to create schools and colleges that would work for everybody, because that was very expensive and voters didn't want to pay for it." The real costs of this situation are now clear; anyone concerned about it should heed this book. Agent, Amanda Urban, ICM. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

This book treats two distinctive but distinctly interrelated themes in which Lemann (The Great Migration) has evinced sustained interest: educational opportunity in America as it determines socioeconomic success and (in)equity as it reflects educational opportunity. Lemann does not altogether succeed in integrating these two stories. For lengthy stretches, this book is about the ostensible development of an objective elite through standardized testing and the establishment of Educational Testing Service (ETS) and its major product, the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), as an American state religion. Lemann shows how a handful of eccentric, Depression-reared members of the WASP elite went about reforming access to Ivy League education by pushing their confidence in the quantitative social sciences to the point where SAT scores, not family origin, became what mattered most to young adults' chances. As Lemann relates that history, he interjects the personal stories of a later generation of eccentrics at Yale and Harvard Law in the 1960s who fought to make access to higher education yet more inclusive. Finally, Lemann makes clear that the SAT and civil rights come out of egalitarian impulses that might each resist the other. Lemann's work in the archives of ETS is commendable, and overall this is an important contribution to American sociology by a lay journalist. Recommended for academic, public, and high school libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/99.]√ĄScott H. Silverman, Bryn Mawr Coll. Lib., PA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

This social history of academic testing in the US describes the educational establishment's zeal for empirical measures of intelligence and scholastic aptitude. Lehman (New Yorker staff writer and former national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, 1993-98) uses Educational Testing Service (ETS) archival information and biographical portraits to examine the evolution of the idea that educational opportunity should be given to individuals selected by virtue of talent (test scores) rather than wealth. American meritocracy links an elite selection process to the cultural ideal of equal opportunity for the masses. Its core features were shaped by James B. Conant (Harvard), Henry Chauncey (ETS), Clark Kerr (Univ. of California), and other individuals who operated largely outside the public sphere. The author argues that middle- and upper-class families whose offspring vie for access to prestigious colleges and universities have appropriated meritocratic systems for identifying academic potential. He describes contemporary political battles over affirmative action and offers a thoughtful vision of how a "real" meritocracy might be attained. Clearly written, persuasive and engaging, this volume should interest general readers and students and faculty specializing in education, educational psychology, educational policy studies, social foundations, psychology, sociology, and American studies. J. A. Gamradt; University of New Mexico

Table of Contents

Book 1 The Moral Equivalent of Religion
1. Henry Chauncey's Ideap. 3
2. The Glass Slipperp. 17
3. Native Intelligencep. 27
4. The Natural Aristocracyp. 42
5. Victoryp. 53
6. IQ Joep. 70
7. The Census of One Abilityp. 81
8. The Standard Gaugep. 96
9. In the Systemp. 109
10. Meritocracyp. 115
Book 2 The Master Plan
11. Rah! Rah! Rah!p. 125
12. Chauncey at Yalep. 140
13. The Negro Problemp. 155
14. The Fall of Clark Kerrp. 166
15. The Invention of the Asian-Americanp. 174
16. Mandarinsp. 185
17. The Weak Spotp. 198
18. Workingp. 212
19. The Fall of William Turnbullp. 218
Book 3 The Guardians
20. Behind the Curtainp. 235
21. Berkeley Squeezedp. 241
22. Molly's Crisisp. 255
23. The Case of Winton Manningp. 268
24. Surprise Attackp. 278
25. No Retreatp. 293
26. The Fundis and the Realosp. 300
27. Changing Sidesp. 309
28. Defeatp. 323
Epiloguep. 337
Afterword: A Real Meritocracyp. 343
Notesp. 351
Acknowledgmentsp. 391
Indexp. 395