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42 of 47 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not what you think....
Having looked over the other reader reviews for this book, I am surprised by what the reviewers expected this book to be about. It is not an expose on the SAT. It is, rather, a look at the Test (capital letter intended). It is a look into the people and philosophies that shaped Educational testing and, to be frank, America itself.
Lemann portrays the key players...
Published on April 17, 2002 by Kindle Customer

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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars If it had started as strongly as it finished, I'd give it 4
One of the great things about Lemann is the way he writes history that straddles the line between social/cultural history and tradtional, political history. The Big Test does that very nicely, and in so doing points out that educational testing became a de facto part of American life without ever being voted on by the citizenry or elected officials. It just...
Published on January 24, 2000 by Tyler Green


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42 of 47 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not what you think...., April 17, 2002
This review is from: The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (Paperback)
Having looked over the other reader reviews for this book, I am surprised by what the reviewers expected this book to be about. It is not an expose on the SAT. It is, rather, a look at the Test (capital letter intended). It is a look into the people and philosophies that shaped Educational testing and, to be frank, America itself.
Lemann portrays the key players involved in the testing movement, its propagation, and its continuation to the present day. He also gives to us a look into the Meritocratic (or rulers determined by their merit rather than money) society envisoned by Jefferson.
This is an extremely interesting book. This book will leave you thinking. You will challenge your own ideologies.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinating Read..., September 7, 2000
By 
keithalanj "keithalanj" (Red Bank, NJ United States) - See all my reviews
This book is well written and informative. It should be on the "must read" list of anyone who has even a remote interest in the state of American education and public policy. In a functioning democracy, that should include all of us.
It is, however, an injustice to call this just a book. It is actually two books, roughly connected by a premise not sustained. The first book deals with the history and presumptions behind the present educational testing process as a selection method for determining access to higher education, and is by far the more important. The second book deals with the electoral process surrounding the affirmative action initiatives in California, and while interesting, is actually something of a cul-de-sac in proving what on the surface appears to be Lemann's main thesis.
Affirmative action is, even by Lemann's own admission, a judicially gerrymandered solution to problems created not by testing, but by previous inequities in society. While the faulty reasoning of the Warren court as interpreted by the Johnson Administration in developing the basis for affirmative action is at least as questionable as the faulty reasoning underlying the basis for educational testing, the two issues do not share a common causal relation.
It is almost as though Lemann started out to write a book about the California affirmative action inititatives and halfway through discovered a larger story, but was unable or unwilling to trash the affirmative action stuff to write the book that needed to be written.
Rather than making the affirmative action his ultimate proof, Lemann would have been better to make this a side argument in the larger question which needs be debated, "Whether the historical presumptions underlying the present testing system are valid, and as a result, does the testing system's role in determining college admissions need to be revised?"
The answer to both questions is, undoubtedly, yes. There are many additional indications that the present system is deficient, not the least of which is the number of extremely successful individuals who have eschewed the formal educational process (Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Ted Turner, Steve Jobs, etc.) The effect of the increasing mandarinization of our government and professions on society as a whole is also especially relevant, as the other society which relied upon such methods ultimately self-destructed (the Chinese empire).
Unfortunately, by focussing on only affirmative action, and not providing additional proofs for what appears to be his main thesis, Lemann turns what could have been an extremely important book into one which is merely a well written and thought provoking read.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars If it had started as strongly as it finished, I'd give it 4, January 24, 2000
One of the great things about Lemann is the way he writes history that straddles the line between social/cultural history and tradtional, political history. The Big Test does that very nicely, and in so doing points out that educational testing became a de facto part of American life without ever being voted on by the citizenry or elected officials. It just happened.
Lemann's interest in his subject seems to fade in and out. The first 50 pages of The Big Test are painful reading. Lemann's boredom shows through in frequent 65-word sentences that he didn't bother editing down. But by the mid-1950s, Lemann hits his stride, colorfully explaining how the SAT and other standardized tests became a part of educational life. He carries his discussion of educational testing into the 1980s and 90s by picking examples of "typical Americans" and telling their stories. It his here, when Lemann applies his background as a journalist to write narrative history, that the book is at its best. It is here that Lemann points out the inequities that have the SAT propogates and builds a case that we need to make changes in our educational testing system. Just when you want a chapter wrapping it all up, a chapter in which Lemann presents his argument for change, you get it. Lemann's final chapter or two should be mandatory reading for educators and admissions officers.
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67 of 89 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Lacking in quantitative evidence & moral seriousness, October 13, 1999
By A Customer
After a decade's research, the graceful prose stylist NicholasLemann has finally published his expose of the SAT, "The BigTest: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy." His conclusion: It's just not fair. How can you, he asks, "create a classless society by establishing a system that relentlessly classifies people"? But the bigger question is one Lemann relentlessly dodges: Can you create a classless society at all? The Khmer Rouge came closest, but to enforce classlessness, they still had to have two classes: the killers and the killees.
In the endless debate over mental tests, there's one sure-fire test of how morally serious an author is. Does he honestly grapple with the raw, hulking fact of human intellectual inequality? Lemann flunks his personal Big Test badly, as he spends 343 pages sidestepping this central reality.
The problem is that some people are simply smarter than other people. Yes, it helps to go to good schools and have parents who read to you and all that. Still, siblings raised in the same home routinely turn out highly different in intelligence. Even fraternal twins raised side by side aren't very similar. Only identical twins, who share the same DNA, tend to come out alike in IQ.
Is it fair that winners in this genetic lottery tend to be better able to provide for themselves? Of course not. But the relevant question for us is: What we do about it? Do we try to equalize mental ability? (Whacking smart kids on the head with a ball-peen hammer would be the most effective way.) Or do we treat brainpower as a precious natural resource that can benefit all of society?
Paradoxically, by focusing on usefulness rather than fairness, IQ tests like the SAT have helped eliminate much blatant unfairness. They've shown that discrimination is expensive. For example, everyone assumed men were smarter than women until pioneering IQ researcher Cyril Burt announced they were equal way back in 1912. After WWII when colleges began competing on their students' average SAT scores, they found that the easiest way to get more bright students was to stop discriminating against women. Similarly, this competition for brains also induced Ivy League colleges to finally stop mistreating Jews, the highest scoring ethnic group.
The Math portion of the SAT has been a huge boon to Asian immigrants. Software engineer and journalist Arthur Hu responds to Lemann's snide history of the SAT: "My father and mother from China sent 7 kids to MIT and Stanford on the basis of high SAT scores. Six of us are now in high tech and the other is a doctor. Isn't this exactly what the people who invented the SAT had in mind?"
Although Lemann shows no interest in technologists, we should note that the Math SAT has been a huge boon to American prosperity. It liberated a group so dispersed and downtrodden that it didn't even have a name until about 30 years ago: nerds. By identifying nerdy geniuses in high schools across the world, many of whom were too bored to make good grades, the Math SAT enabled them to form critical masses of computer geeks in nerd havens like Stanford and MIT. Out of these colleges grew the great high-tech incubators such as Silicon Valley and Route 128, which are the engines of the current American boom.
The effects of the Verbal SAT are more troublesome, though. Certainly it has bestowed upon America more clever lawyers, but that is, shall we say, a mixed blessing.
The Verbal SAT has also allowed America's future elite of journalists, academics, and policy wonks to cluster together at Ivy League universities at an early age. There they form career-boosting friendships with like-minded young verbalists.
That the SAT jumpstarts the careers of brilliant young scientists and engineers is an unmixed blessing because their precocious creativity is tested against unforgiving reality: If their Hot New Idea turns out to be wrong, their bridge falls down or their computer program bombs. Verbal SAT elitism, however, brings together at an early age the young people with the most dazzling rhetorical talents who can thus mesmerize each other with their soaring theories of how the world ought to work ... long before they have a clue about how the world actually works.
For example, for 20 years Lemann's neoliberal friends have been publicly attacking IQ testing and the SAT. Lemann's big book was to be their coup de grace. Year after year he searched for flaws in the numbers and logic of the IQ realists like Arthur Jensen and Charles Murray. And then ... Lemann punted. Those hoping for a refutation of The Bell Curve in The Big Test will be disappointed. In fact, in this purported history of testing, there are almost no numbers and not much more logic. Left with apparently nothing analytical to say about intelligence that wouldn't embarrass either his friends or the truth, Lemann padded his book with endless personal details about some excruciatingly boring people. Fortunately for Lemann, since his natural audience of liberal verbalists aren't too comfortable with either numbers or logic, they'll no doubt appreciate having neither their mental skills nor their prejudices challenged. In summary, the best example of the nefarious impact of the SAT is Lemann's own book.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Enlightening, but ultimately disappointing, November 4, 1999
By A Customer
Nicholas Lemann is a fine writer whose previous book about the migration of African-Americans from South to North, "The Promised Land," is one of the most important nonfiction books of the decade. Unfortunately, "The Big Test" isn't up to the same standard, though it's interesting and well worth reading.
Like other reviewers, I found Lemann's early history of the SAT and the ETS fascinating, but found myself puzzling over the book's lengthy digression into recounting the efforts of a group of Ivy League-educated California lawyers to derail Proposition 209, the anti-affirmative action initiative. I have a hard time seeing a connection between the two narratives, though I suppose that the two taken together show the difficulties this country has had in trying to adopt a "fair" or purely "meritocratic" system of admission to selective universities. The two narratives also make the ironic point that some of the most highly rewarded beneficiaries of that system became its most vigorous opponents.
Lemann seems to take the position that only people with high SAT scores go to selective universities, and only graduates of selective universities end up having a high income in later life. There are simply too many exceptions to this rule for us to believe in it. Most selective colleges still practice some form of affirmative action, consider criteria other than grades and test scores in admissions, and admit plenty of students with low SAT scores. A few (Bowdoin, for example) don't even require SAT scores.
A point Lemann makes, but seems to ignore in the pursuit of his argument, is that a college education is now available to a huge number of young Americans, probably a higher percentage than in any other country in the world, providing great opportunity for upward mobility. Many excellent universities do not require SAT scores in the 700's, and these days you don't need to be an Ivy League graduate to get a good job.
Finally, we are fortunate to live in a country where the greatest rewards and recognition go not to people who get good grades and score high on the SAT (whom Lemann calls "Mandarins"), but to people with special abilities and vision, or who are willing to work hard and take risks (whom Lemann calls "Talents"). Fortunately, "Talents" are the real winners in our society, and we are less credential-conscious than Lemann thinks. It is also true that many of Lemann's "Mandarins" end up as low-paid academics, government employees or journalists, or as risk-averse lawyers, doctors and middle managers. It's hard to accept Lemann's argument that high SAT scores are the only true ticket to the good life.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars To the Talents Belong the Spoils, January 4, 2000
The Big Test is not as I expected it to be, i.e. a profound expose of the Educational Testing Service and the unfairness of the SAT. It is however a revealing window into the process by which our elite universities have attempted to grapple with a self preserving desire to recruit the best and the brightest (and in private universities those most likely to provide alumni financial support) against a reality that their version of the best and the brightest (as measured by SAT scores) is not a sociologically neutral and colorblind polyglot of equally distributed talents.
Perhaps the most profound element of Nicholas Lemann's book is the realization that intelligence is often far more than the simple ability to think and reason as tested by the SAT. While these characteristics are often those which ensure success in the academic world, there are other equally important skills which the elite academic world virtually ignores, e.g. artistic and creative ability, leadership, entrepreneurial spirit, people skills, and good old common sense (attributes far more common to the group which Mr. Lemann calls the Talents.)
Nevertheless the distribution of the few positions available at the elite universities has become a battleground measured with far too much imprecision by the results of a single examination known as the SAT. Lemann notes that the distribution of these seats was formerly the "unfair" result of birth into wealthy and socially prominent families. Today, for the elite universities, the SAT has become virtually the sole measuring criteria in a search for those individuals whose academic talents and lifelong potential can certainly and surely be accurately and easily measured during a four hour examination on a Saturday morning in a pubescent display of intellectual gymnastics. Not!
While the "Mandarin" class of liberal intellectual elite anoints itself with self importance and wrings its hands at the apparent unfairness of the SAT, it simultaneously makes certain its own children are fully prepared to excel on this examination.
If there is a redeeming grace in all of this excess preoccupation with the SAT it is that ultimately the Talents (and not the Mandarins) prevail in American society.
From this book it is clear that the SAT is not designed to ferret out and identify the Talents. Such an analysis is far too complicated for a number 2 pencil and a series of multiple choice questions.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Big Test - An interesting Book, April 20, 2006
This review is from: The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (Paperback)
The big test is a very interesting book. The author makes you feel as though the story concerns you. The author uniquely ties earlier chapters of the book to later chapters. For example, the story of how Mr. Kaplan started his test prep business is discussed in chapter 9. This is connected to the information in chapter 19.

I would recommend this book to college students. I think if students know the history of SAT and other standardized test, they will develop a different attitude about these tests.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinating Read..., September 7, 2000
By 
keithalanj "keithalanj" (Red Bank, NJ United States) - See all my reviews
This book is well written and informative. It should be on the "must read" list of anyone who has even a remote interest in the state of American education and public policy. In a functioning democracy, that should include all of us.
It is, however, an injustice to call this just a book. It is actually two books, roughly connected by a premise not sustained. The first book deals with the history and presumptions behind the present educational testing process as a selection method for determining access to higher education, and is by far the more important. The second book deals with the electoral process surrounding the affirmative action initiatives in California, and while interesting, is actually something of a cul-de-sac in proving what on the surface appears to be Lemann's main thesis.
Affirmative action is, even by Lemann's own admission, a judicially gerrymandered solution to problems created not by testing, but by previous inequities in society. While the faulty reasoning of the Warren court as interpreted by the Johnson Administration in developing the basis for affirmative action is at least as questionable as the faulty reasoning underlying the basis for educational testing, the two issues do not share a common causal relation.
It is almost as though Lemann started out to write a book about the California affirmative action inititatives and halfway through discovered a larger story, but was unable or unwilling to trash the affirmative action stuff to write the book that needed to be written.
Rather than making the affirmative action his ultimate proof, Lemann would have been better to make this a side argument in the larger question which needs be debated, "Whether the historical presumptions underlying the present testing system are valid, and as a result, does the testing system's role in determining college admissions need to be revised?"
The answer to both questions is, undoubtedly, yes. There are many additional indications that the present system is deficient, not the least of which is the number of extremely successful individuals who have eschewed the formal educational process (Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Ted Turner, Steve Jobs, etc.) The relationship between the increasing mandarinization of our government and professions and the disaffectation of society as a whole is also especially relevant, as the other society which relied upon such methods ultimately self-destructed (the Chinese empire).
Unfortunately, by focussing on only affirmative action, and not providing additional proofs for what appears to be his main thesis, Lemann turns what could have been an extremely important book into one which is merely a well written and thought provoking read.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars From a reconstructed Mandarin, December 2, 1999
In "The Big Test" Lemann manages to nail down some of the feelings I've had about higher education ever since my days at an Ivy League University. The book has been erroneously sold as a critique of the SAT and ETS. It isn't. What it is a critique and history of the changing systems that we, as Americans, have used to transmit wealth and power form one generation to the next. While we are arguably the most socio-economically mobile society in the world, this historical constant remains; wealthy and powerful citizens usually have wealthy and powerful offspring. Lemann shows us how the old smarmy eastern prep school system was replaced by an ostensibly objective testing system that ETS dreamed would bring the best and brightest together at our top universities,. He displays and quietly rebukes the notion that we ought to be led by this grand class of intellects, selected at the nubile age of 18 by a testing device that looks almost exactly like an IQ test. He also shows those self same intellects to be rather pitifully deluded about their own importance. The secret part of the secret history that Lemann tells is how overt intergenerational replicaiton of social class was replaced by a testing regime that did very nearly the same thing, only under the guise of that all amercian merit and achievement. The secret is that the offically nonexistent upper class still functionally operates the way in did in the 20's. Whats more, he reveals this cautiously, telling us the history through case studies, yet pulling at nearly every important historical thread in the American tapestry. Only in the end does he draw his conclusions; a refreshing style in contrast the simplistic conclusion jumping that we absorb on the nightly news. The essence of the book is not given in its title, which has been taken as an invtitation to pigeonhole, but its subtitle: "The secret history of the American Meritocracy." That's really what the book is all about.
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30 of 41 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A disappointing book., October 13, 1999
By A Customer
Despite its title, this book contains little information or analysis about the "Big Test"(i.e., the SAT I), what the SAT predicts, and how it is actually used in the college admissions process. Lemann asumes that SAT scores are not very useful. In fact they predict college academic performance as well as high school transcripts, and grades and SAT scores together are a significantly better predictor than grades alone. Lemann assumes that SAT scores are the determinative factor in college admissions. They are not; college admissions officers are telling the truth when they say that the SATs are but one factor among many. Lemann believes that success in America depends almost entirely on whether one goes to a highly selective college. This is the view of an Ivy Leaguer with a very limited perspective on American life. If you wish to understand how selective colleges actually use the SAT in admissions, and why, I recommend A is for Admission, by Michele Hernandez, and Choosing Elites by Robert Klitgaard. The Big Test mostly consists of a series of mildly interesting, loosely connected thumbnail sketches of people involved with the Educational Testing Service, Harvard, Yale, Berkeley and affirmative action politics in California. The phenomenon that Lemann is worried about, social stratification on the basis of educational attainment, is an important one, but this book sheds very little light on it.
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The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy
The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy by Nicholas Lemann (Paperback - November 16, 2000)
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