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The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy Paperback – November 16, 2000

3.8 out of 5 stars 42 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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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Product Details

  • 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 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #107,918 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: 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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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Although this book is a bit too long and deviates into individual histories that are interesting, but not completely relevant to the main issue, the main ideas of Leman's book are tremendously important for any thinking American. Not really a history of the SAT, the book is more a history of post-war attitudes towards what we think of when we think of an "elite" or an "aristocracy of intellect," etc. The book is an important one to read, especially now when our society is becoming much more similar to Mexico and the Philippines in its disparity of wealth and class than it is to the image of itself in the years, 1945-80. With one per cent of the population controlling forty per cent of the wealth, we really need to ask some basic questions about where we are headed as a nation. This book begins that discussion. I am amazed that Leeman wrote it a decade ago.

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.
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