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The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy Paperback – November 16, 2000
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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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top Customer Reviews
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.
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.Read more ›
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.
Leman's "Afterword to the Paperback Edition" (343-51) is of critical importance to the message of this book. If you have no time to read any other part of the book, read these pages. Here is where his whole history of American efforts to define or create a "meritocracy" hits home: "The chief aim of school should be not to sort people, but to teach as many people as possible as well as possible, equipping them for both work and citizenship...The purpose of schools should be to expand opportunity, not to determine results" (348). He turns the idea of the SAT to a critically political interpretation: "The culture of frenzy surrounding admissions is destructive and anti-democratic; it warps the sensibilities and distorts the education of the millions of people whose lives it touches" (351). This is brilliant thinking and clear thinking. Leman has linked the (now distorted)goals of higher education in this country to the perverse societal structure that it continues to produce. One does not have to be a leftist or progressive to understand the danger of such a direction for our country. One need only be a patriot.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Nicholas Lemann is a noted journalist and professor at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. He is considered a skilled writer. Read morePublished 3 months ago by doug korty
a dry narrative on one of social science's most destructive "measures" of American intelligence ever developed. Read morePublished 20 months ago by Liznola
Like most books that try to be current, this book doesn't look quite as good as it did when it came out. But its main point still has traction. Read morePublished on July 4, 2014 by J. LAWSON
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. Read morePublished on June 1, 2014 by Kindle Customer
The best laid plans . . . Lemann writes a deeply insightful book on the growth of the SAT and the resultant American meritocracy. Read morePublished on May 4, 2013 by Stuart Shapiro
mr Robert Moses perhaps our country's greatest citizen considers this an important book --normally I would not judge a book --unread by another man's judgement but this is an... Read morePublished on April 29, 2011 by Jack Cade
I'm doing a very broad independent study project about education, focusing a bit on educational inequity and methods of assessment. Read morePublished on November 26, 2010 by Student Guy
Although the background of the SAT is only part of this book (not the whole thing, as the title would lead you to believe), the history of the SAT that is presented is fascinating,... Read morePublished on October 31, 2009 by Privacy, Please
Nick Lemann, the author of two other books that are groundbreaking and are among my favorites (The Promise Land, and Redemption), here in exploring the history of the SAT, shows... Read morePublished on May 26, 2008 by Herbert L Calhoun