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The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy

3.87  ·  Rating details ·  307 ratings  ·  41 reviews
What do we know about the history, origin, design, and purpose of the SAT? Who invented it, and why? How did it acquire such a prominent and lasting position in American education? The Big Test reveals the ideas, people, and politics behind a fifty-year-old utopian social experiment that changed this country. Combining vibrant storytelling, vivid portraiture, and thematic ...more
Paperback, 416 pages
Published November 16th 2000 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 1999)
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Average rating 3.87  · 
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David
Aug 27, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Most nonfiction books are alike in that they present their compelling arguments in the first chapter, their conclusions and recommendations in the final chapter, and everything in-between can be skimmed to get a sense of the evidence used to get from point A to point B. BUT NOT SO THIS BOOK.

Lemann is quite possibly the most engaging nonfiction writer I've read, weaving a compelling and increasingly complex narrative that begins in the hallowed halls of the turn-of-the-century academic elite and
...more
Stefania Dzhanamova
Mar 02, 2020 rated it really liked it
In his very well-written book, Nicholas Lemann examines the creation of the Scholastic Aptitude Test and the generation that got into Ivy League colleges due to their SAT results.

Although the idea to abandon episcopacy for meritocracy seemed noble and reasonable, Lemann argues that the SAT creators simply exchanged one elite for another. Before, the rich were accepted thanks to their parents’ money and their place on the social ladder; after, they were accepted due to their parents’ ability to
...more
Clif
Mar 20, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
I enjoyed this book for the history of the Educational Testing Service, the makers of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) it provides an 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 co
...more
Dwayne
Jan 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
Most of the people I've seen who dislike this book ask, "why isn't there more data in the book," as if their opinion would be different if the data they're looking for was included. That information is both available elsewhere and wouldn't change their minds.

Lemann focuses on the creation the tests, what the creators had in mind when they created the tests, what the tests actually became, and what happened with the generation of people who entered college as a result of those tests. It's a great
...more
DoctorM
Mar 09, 2011 rated it really liked it
I've always been good at standardised tests--- ACT, SAT, GRE, LSAT. Standardised tests have been good to me, too--- they got me into an Ivy, got me into grad school, got me into law school. Of course...despite the four post-grad degrees, I still make less than the receptionists at major firms...and I'm not teaching at a good university in NYC or working for a major NGO. So maybe all the ETS standardised tests didn't predict my level of success or social value after all. Hmmmm... So reading "The ...more
McKenzie
Jul 07, 2012 rated it liked it
If I could, I would probably rate this one at 3.5 stars. I picked up The Big Test hoping to use it for my literature review for my thesis, and thus found the first third of this book absolutely compelling. Lemann explores the history of the SAT, moving from its origins in the military during WWI to its use as a scholarship tool by the Ivy Leagues to the founding of ETS to its dominance of the national collegiate admissions landscape. Fascinating little tidbits - like the story of Stanley Kaplan, ...more
Patrick
Some really interesting stories, but ultimately I don't think Lemann pulls all the narrative strands together like he did in PROMISED LAND. But I'm glad I read it for two reasons --

1) I was interested to learn how we as a nation talked ourselves into using the SATs and ACTs as the primary determining factor on where (and which) people went to college...

2) Amazingly, a wealth of information in these pages on my favorite current business leader, Charlie Munger of Pasadaena. A completely unexpecte
...more
Beckie
Dec 20, 2011 rated it really liked it
"The Big Test" is one of those books everyone should read. It proves how wonderful narrative nonfiction can be. It takes a seemingly small thing: the history of standardized admissions tests, and makes it about nearly everything that matters. Nicholas Lemann is a terrific writer, and one of the book's great strengths is the way he weaves together different people's stories to craft a broad and meaningful history.
Not only is "The Big Test" a great piece of writing, it raises important issues. How
...more
Anna
Feb 22, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Young Adults, AP Language Students
On the summer that I took off for Iowa City, Iowa to write test questions for ACT, I also brought this book to read. I was on a mission to discover the bias of standardized tests, but I learned even more about educational opportunity and who really gets deemed eligible for an Ivy League education, affirmative action and California's Proposition 249 to eliminate it, as well as the insanity of the high-stakes Scholastic Aptitude Test. This is a must-read for any kid with S.A.T. anxiety. ...more
Mark
Nov 24, 2007 rated it really liked it
This is an excellent history of the creation of the SAT and its forerunners, examining the theories of general intelligence testing, the social purposes of creating the exam and the growing political power of the Educational Testing Service.
Kathleen Diermier
Aug 25, 2009 rated it really liked it
Forget where I heard about this book, probably NPR. Interesting and thought provoking; however, the author's style and his flexing of his vocabulary- especially in first half of book- made reading the book like walking through a muddy field in loose wellies. ...more
Nick
Sep 15, 2007 rated it liked it
How the SAT is rigged... a fascinating look into the tests, its history and expansion.

I highlight fascinating, and not exciting in any visceral sense. Then again, it is about the SAT isn't it???
...more
Scott Ford
Feb 06, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: education
A book every educator should read - actually, ever legislation should have this on his or her required reading list as well.
John  Chrysostom
Nov 13, 2020 rated it liked it
This was an interesting read.

The first half was very interesting, and felt like it could have been written by someone who could be called a "conspiracy theorist". The connections between the OSA and intelligence testing with people like Robert Yerkes, who was a friend of John Watson and did intelligence testing to place people in WWI, and the SAT were illuminating.

It felt in the first half or so, that we were addressing an important question, which was, basically; How valid are these IQ test a
...more
Ann Joyce
Oct 11, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: read2020
There are some good things about this book on meritocracy in American education. However, the book tries to do too many things. The story is disjointed and jumps from topic to topic. The reason I picked up this book was to learn something more about the genesis of aptitude testing. Unfortunately, this is the weakest part of the book. The discussion of the history of testing is confusing with lots of names but not a lot of insight. The portion of the book covering Prop 209 in California is engagi ...more
Gabriel Nathan
May 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Very interesting and engaging read, chronicling the foundation of the Educational Testing Service, evolution of university education, and the fight for affirmative action. Lemann manages to combine historical explanation with individual mini-biographies of the key players involved, connecting individual lives and aspirations to the collective arc of history - making the book informative and also entertaining.
Kanoa
Aug 12, 2018 rated it really liked it
Fascinating read about the origins of the SAT.
Bryan Alkire
Apr 26, 2019 rated it liked it
Title is overblown and the book is more about personalities who allegedly benefitted from testing than about testing itself
Sheila
Jan 13, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: education
This book explores the evolution of the U.S. "aristocracy" to a "meritocracy." The “aristocracy” being the wealthy WASP families, who for generations had attended the same elite prep schools and colleges (Harvard, Yale, Princeton..) Before WWII, there was no attempt to include intelligent non-elites into this mix and the book includes many anecdotes about how little these elites actually worked vs. played, and how unconcerned they were with obtaining employment after college, because they were e ...more
Keith McCormick
Oct 20, 2014 rated it really liked it
I am revisiting (in 2007) this book because my alma mater, an engineering school, is making the SAT optional. This book has always been a favorite. Specifically, I loved the series of Atlantic Monthly articles, of many years ago, on which it was based. When assembled as a book, it suffered in that the last portion of the book deals with California's proposition 209. As mentioned in the one of the media review, it doesn't really fit. The original history content covering the first 50 years of the ...more
Franc Guzman
Nov 28, 2014 rated it really liked it
You know, the problem with most non-fiction writing is that it's presented as cold, hard facts with no real effort to captivate the reader. That's the reason why most non-fiction books are read by experts in the field or students in the field the book is covering; the book doesn't have to fully entrance the reader in those situations, because the readers are already fully invested in their field and don't need to be convinced to keep reading as long as the information is new, reliable, and usefu ...more
Caroline Hendrie
Jun 01, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: work
I've read lots of books on education and its role in society, but this was one of the best. It came out 15 years ago but is more relevant today than ever. That's especially true following the College Board's announced redesign of the SAT and the coming debut of new tests tied to Common Core State Standards.

The book is shot through with thought-provokding social analysis. But it is also peopled with compelling characters whose stories range over decades, from Cambridge to California and parts in
...more
Mike Horne
Dec 07, 2014 rated it liked it
The first half of this book is worth 4 or 5 stars (5 for me because I read the US AP tests every summer). The history of ETS is pretty fascinating. The book then lands in California's Proposition 409 story and does not end strong.

He argues that American meritocracy (started in the early part of the 20th century) sought to create a new elite based not on family but intelligence (or at least academic success). This elite would become Jefferson's natural aristocracy who would serve society. The SA
...more
Frank Frag
Jul 05, 2012 rated it liked it
This is an excellent account of how the American education system became reliant on the SAT, insofar as it goes. Although Lemann gives a fairly accurate picture of the many inroads and crossroads that were followed to develop the SAT, he unfortunately felt he had to focus on a group of individuals, but specifically, Molly, the successful lawyer - to prove a point he never makes.

It is fairly apparent that he wants us to see how important the SAT was and is in the making of success for our nation
...more
Jana
Mar 06, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2015, non-fiction, phd, eol571
I chose to read this for my critical book review assignment in my Foundations of Higher Education course. The book started out as an Atlantic article and was expanded into a full-length book after the original article's publication. (Of course it did - what is more educated upper- and middle-class white people bait than discussing the merits of a particular aspect of higher education?)

Even though this book was published in 1999, it didn't seem that old or dated in its approach to the history of
...more
Butch Hamilton
Jul 11, 2012 rated it really liked it
If you are in education, this is a must read. Testing is not only a buzzword, but a way of everyday life. While it is important and a factor in education, it has become too much of an important factor. When used correctly, testing is indeed a valuable component of learning. With phrases like "high stakes testing" and "teaching to the test," I feel like getting sick. Numbers - SAT, ACT, AP - tell a good story but not the entire story. ...more
Dea Conrad-curry
Jan 24, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: professional
This book was historically intriguing. Whatever negative thoughts you may have had about standardized tests are true. They were initially designed to limit who could attend Ivy League schools. ACT came about because a professor at the University of Iowa thought Midwesterners were being shut out of higher ed. This book is carefully documented, names names, and tells of closed door deals that made great profit for our "not for profit" testing companies. ...more
anne
Mar 21, 2013 added it
Shelves: history, education
Really interesting history, but I could have used less personal detail, more widespread analysis. And then recommendations in the afterword surprised me (not in a good way) given the nuanced discussions previously. Still, Lemann's basic points - that our idea of "meritocracy" is fundamentally broken, that education should not be used as a reward that confers special privileges, and that the perpetuation of so-called "aptitude testing" is a serious problem - are well taken. ...more
J.C.
Aug 01, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This is a stellar history of the development of gatekeeper educational testing in the US. Lemann presents with great clarity the facts behind a major factor, used by elite universities, of sifting admission candidates. Understanding this background has helped me quite a lot in formulating recommendations I am readying for a presentation in my professional capacity.
Amanda
Apr 16, 2008 rated it liked it
I've been wanting to read this for a long time, but only now got the chance. Very deliberate pace. Have to be committed, but found it really interesting especially in light of my own educational journey. ...more
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