The Big Test Two Decades On

It is helpful to be aware one’s biases. I’m saddled with more than a few, and one is a reflexive distrust of anything called a “secret history.” I know, it’s not rational. To my thinking, though, if it’s being talked about, it can’t be a secret. So why call it that?

That idiosyncrasy played a key role in keeping Nicholas Lemann’s The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy on my unread list for many years. The book was published in 1999, twenty years ago. I remember discussions I had about it with colleagues at the time. Handily, The Big Test was extensively reviewed and I knew enough to follow the argument. Older, less sure of myself, and perhaps just a tad more flexible, I thought it high time to acquaint myself directly with this important book. After all, the SAT seems to remain as relevant as ever.

Lemann is an experienced journalist, an academician (former dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism), and an indefatigable researcher. The heart of The Big Test is Lemann’s work on the history and growth of ETS, the testing behemoth based in Princeton, NJ. ETS emerged at a critical moment in American history, offering educational and political leaders a means to scientifically provide greater opportunities to the more deserving after World War II. Lemann charts all this and the players expertly. He draws connections between the players, in particular Harvard president James Conant and early ETS head Henry Chauncey, their elite institutions, and the insidious ways that privilege can influence thoughts and actions. It makes for really fascinating reading. The closer the narrative sticks to ETS and the world of testing, the stronger the book is.

Essential to understanding the role of the SAT is appreciating the hopes that accompanied its development and the aspiration of objective testing. The hope was that social science could find ways for smart and talented people to advance, whether they came from privilege or not. Testing was going to be a vehicle of opportunity. However, over time the researchers at ETS and others realized that tests like the SAT cannot do this. SAT scores do not predict college success any more effectively than high school grades. SAT scores align with family and community wealth. SAT scores do not automatically open doors, find innate ability, or identify hidden talent. Improvements in SAT scores can be coached – and they have been for decades. In other words, the original aim of the SAT was never achieved.

The arc of the book, though, is greater than ETS and the rise of mass testing. Lemann wants to examine the growth of meritocratic mandarin leadership in the US. The underlying themes are about the replication of elites, the structure and ways that power replicates itself. He draws widely and selectively to make these points, looking at conflicts in higher education, civil rights and the law. He has some really interesting heroes, too. He does not look to famous figures but instead sketches stories through those that are active players, especially during the civil rights movement. Lawyers like Molly Munger provide individual perspectives on ways that questions of access, fairness, and equity may or may not be possible.

The larger narrative is intriguing, enjoyable, and not compelling. The challenge is that standardized testing is not a good vehicle from which to look at the distribution of power and opportunity in the US. Yes, indeed, standardized testing does have consequences that are important. As we all know all too well, the SAT tracks very closely with socioeconomic status. The exam is not an unbiased instrument that opens opportunity. What the Big Test does make clear, persuasively, is that testing is a function of broader societal structures. It is a consequence and useful means for understanding the circulation of elites.

As SAT scores – and other standardized testing measures – continue to play a critical role in American education, The Big Test remains a relevant work. I am going to keep an eye out for newer scholarship on standardized testing. With or with any secret histories.

David Potash

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