- Paperback: 416 pages
- Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (November 16, 2000)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0374527512
- ISBN-13: 978-0374527518
- Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.2 x 8.9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 43 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #761,977 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy 1st Edition
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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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
In a country obsessed with educational opportunity, the principal institution for overseeing the distribution of access to higher education, the Educational Testing Service, was founded in "an atmosphere of intrigue, corruption, competition, and disorder." So contends Lemann (The Promised Land) in this enthralling, detailed story of how the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) became enshrined in U.S. culture. Although the idealistic, patrician pioneers of testing may have wished to displace the entitlements of birth and wealth for what they saw as the more democratic entitlements of scholastic aptitude, at the end of the 20th century "their creation looks very much like what it was intended to replace." This story is compelling in itself, but Lemann's exploration of how the politics of American meritocracy turn on the issue of race makes his history absolutely indispensable to current affirmative action and education debates. Lemann's treatment of the 1996 battle over California's anti-affirmative action Proposition 209 convincingly shows how what is nominally a democratic process actually works. The current crises in American education have deep roots: "America had channeled all the opportunity through the educational system and then had failed to create schools and colleges that would work for everybody, because that was very expensive and voters didn't want to pay for it." The real costs of this situation are now clear; anyone concerned about it should heed this book. Agent, Amanda Urban, ICM.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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.
The SAT was intended to provide an impartial system of separating the best and the brightest students from others. I am sure that by now the vast majority of Americans who have taken the SAT and other standardized tests - in some cases over and over - are well aware of their limitations and the fact that some otherwise smart people just do not do well on such tests. Nevertheless, this book makes a compelling case that with the advent of the SAT and the ensuing competition between colleges for the students with the best scores, many socioeconomically or educationally disadvantaged people (perhaps disproportionately African-American) are being excluded, not just from a supposedly better education, but also from the better job opportunities that a highly ranked school brings, based on their inability to score well on standardized tests.
It's unclear just who (if anyone) is the "villain" in this story. One gets the impression that the author meant to write a condemnation of the standardized testing industry. However, the history of the test shows that it did serve to open the doors of higher education for some immigrant and minority groups, such as Jews and Asians. Also, the schools themselves, as well as the people who regard doing well on a standardized test and getting into a "good" school to be the be-all and end-all of success, come off as being pretty screwed up. As other reviewers have noted, the author insinuates that not doing well on the SAT, and consequently not getting into a top school, is a big handicap in life; perhaps this is what he was taught by his own family or culture. The reality is that some people manage to do well in life without scoring highly on tests or going to an "elite" school and the importance of both aspects is likely overemphasized by the author, just as it is overemphasized by some segments of society.
Midway through, the book shifts gears and devotes the last section to highly personalized descriptions of a legislative struggle over public school tax funding and affirmative action. While those who are interested in the state legislative process might enjoy the insights, I thought this section went on way too long and in the end did not portray any of the schools or people involved, much less affirmative action programs, in a positive light. Nor did I think that the problems and issues involved were that related to SAT scores as the author would like you to believe. I think this should have been an entirely different book, and the story of the SAT might have been better just told on its own and left for the reader to think about, rather than grafting on what seems to be an obvious agenda on the part of the author.
This is a foolishe, authoritarian and doomed quest -- ultimately it leads to the Pol Pots of the world. Sowell's book explains the fatal flaw in this kind of arrogant reasoning.
By the way, I went to law school with one of the principal characters in the book. She wasn't nearly as interesting, then or now, as the author tries to make her.