The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy

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9780374299842: The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy

A major work of social history that asks profound moral and political questions about what is right for American society.

This brilliant book shows us for the first time the ideas, the people, and the politics behind a fifty-year-old utopian social experiment that changed modern America.

The experiment-launched by James Bryant Conant, president of Harvard University, and Henry Chauncey, head of the brand-new Educational Testing Service (ETS)-was to use the then-young science of intelligence testing to assess and sort American students in order to create a new democratic elite that would lead postwar America to progress, strength, and prosperity. No writer before Nicholas Lemann has gained access to the archives of the all-powerful ETS, and none has understood the significance of this extraordinary drama. But now, in a remarkable synthesis of vibrant storytelling, vivid portraiture, and thematic analysis, he reveals this secret history.

Predictably, the utopian experiment did not turn out as planned. It created a new elite, but it generated conflict and tension, and American society's best-educated, most privileged people are now leaders with no followers.

Lemann shows that this American meritocracy is neither natural nor inevitable, and it does not apportion opportunity equally or fairly. He concludes with his own keen assessment of what the future may hold.

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Review:

Nicholas Lemann's The Big Test starts off as a look at how the SAT became an integral part of the college application process by telling the stories of men like Henry Chauncey and James Bryant Conant of Harvard University, who sought in the 1930s and '40s to expand their student base beyond the offspring of Brahmin alumni. When they went into the public schools of the Midwest to recruit, standardized testing gave them the means to select which lucky students would be deemed most suitable for an Ivy League education. But about a third of the way through the book, Lemann shifts gears and writes about several college students from the late '60s and early '70s. The reasons for the change-up only become clear in the final third, when those same college students, now in their 40s, lead the fight against California's Proposition 209, a 1996 ballot initiative aimed at eliminating affirmative action programs.

Do these two stories really belong together? For all his storytelling abilities--and they are prodigious--Lemann is not entirely persuasive on this point, especially when he identifies the crucial moment in the civil rights era when "affirmative action evolved as a low-cost patch solution to the enormous problem of improving the lot of American Negroes, who had an ongoing, long-standing tradition of deeply inferior education; at the same time American society was changing so as to make educational performance the basis for individual advancement." Lemann's muddled transition is somewhat obscured by frequent digressions (every new character gets a lengthy background introduction), but a crucial point gets lost in the shuffle, only to reappear fleetingly at the conclusion: "The right fight to be in was the fight to make sure that everybody got a good education," Lemann writes, not to continue to prop up a system that creates one set of standards for privileged students and another set for the less privileged. If The Big Test had focused on that issue, where equal opportunity is genuinely at stake, instead of on the roots of standardized testing, where opportunity was explicitly intended only for a chosen few, it would be a substantially different book--one with a story that almost assuredly could be told as engrossingly as the story Lemann chose to tell, but perhaps with a sharper focus. --Ron Hogan

About the Author:

Born in New Orleans in 1954, Nicholoas Lemann 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.

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