Clif's Reviews > The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy

The Big Test by Nicholas Lemann
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Mar 20, 12

Read in March, 2012

I enjoyed this book for the history of the Educational Testing Service, the makers of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) it provides and the wonderful account of the experience of well meaning people in politics.

The Big Test takes us from the time when the elite of the "Episcopacy" presided over America from the East Coast. College was for the few and the rich who spent their time on campus having fun and making social connections rather than achieving much in academics. Getting rich was hardly a goal for a collegian because they he or she was already rich.

Then a move came to create a meritocracy - where the elite would achieve their position through study and hard intellectual work. As a result the country would be lead by those who had earned their place at the top. Anyone who had the intelligence and drive could get on track to move up.

To provide the highway for this advancement of talent, testing stepped up and took over.

But the author believes that we've only traded one elite for another. Now the rich provide their young with tutoring and test prep and we end up with the rich passing their young through the colleges generation after generation as before. Though not mentioned, I think George W. Bush would be a perfect example of this, in fact a throwback to the old elite, shown by his admission to a carefree life at Yale with mediocre grades.

Nicholas Lemann would like to see higher education be full and not simply a ticket to big bucks and career security. He longs to see education be broad and wide in a way that would make of colleges something more than occupational way-points, issuers of professional credentials.

The most engaging sub-topic covered in The Big Test is affirmative action. AA contradicts the whole purpose of testing to bring out the best and brightest. It does so in order to provide an alternate path for those who are not college ready simply by being exposed to a rich intellectual environment from the moment of birth. It is an admission that a rather narrow range of abilities are promoted by testing and that some accommodation must be made to create equal opportunity. But, of course, the danger of AA is in putting some ahead of others simply be reason of ethnicity in the hope that this injustice on an individual basis will make it unnecessary to have it continued in the future.

AA creates a perilous political situation and The Big Test follows the course of Proposition 219 (to kill AA) in California.

The issues that come up in societies will always launch certain individuals on remarkable careers and The Big Test provides many examples of this, particularly in the life of Henry Chauncey, who rode the wave of testing to the top of the Educational Testing Service. Yet as some are elevated, others are frustrated. We meet every variety in this book.

We get a quite detailed look at ETS, a non-profit that takes in money from every SAT test. ETS claims that it is impossible to study for the SAT, though the Kaplan test tutoring company has proven this false. There is the remarkable account of the MAT (Measure of Academic Talent) test that was developed by ETS that took into account the differences in background of test-takers and was able to isolate those who were likely to excel in higher education regardless of background. It was killed (by ETS) because it would have brought down the scores of the current high scoring pupils relative to others. Winners like to keep on winning.

Leavened with clever humor, The Big Test is must reading for those who, like me, want to know why America is the way it is. Things don't simply happen - people make them happen and often because they are obsessed. Personalities always play a large part; the best of intentions can be thwarted by foibles over which an individual has little control. Not only must the time be ripe for an idea, the person presenting the idea must know how to do so effectively.

Investigating how something comes to be, a bpok like this shows all the angles on a topic and can help one define one's own position, or change it. This is education at its best. This book puts the educational testing idea out on a big plate for us to examine in delicious detail.
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