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Showing 1-9 of 9 reviews(Verified Purchases). See all 43 reviews
on October 8, 2011
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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on October 31, 2009
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, and probably the best part of the book. The book shows how colleges and universities, which were originally intended to promote scholarship and educate professors, had their focus changed by standardized testing (in the author's opinion) and eventually became seen as the gateway to well-paying careers for those people who were not born into wealth and privilege. The author also portrays the class differences and the struggle for public funds between different types of colleges - private vs. public, and community college with the more advanced institutions of higher learning.

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.
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on December 26, 2016
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on July 30, 2003
When my daughters were just beginning the college admissions process a mere three years ago, I had no idea how things had changed or why--and the degree to which my own experience of the process had become irrelevant. This book does much to make that all clear, in prose which smacks of Tom Wolfe and is peopled with fascinating vignettes of characters, known and unknown: from Presidents James Bryant Conant, Clark Kerr, and Kingman Brewster to Henry Chauncy, "Inky" Clark, and Molly Munger, just to name a few. Lemann's thesis is essentially one of good intentions gone painfully awry. The Ivy League and other highly selective colleges have been debrided of old families and old money, only to be replaced by the narrowly proficient and unduly ambitious. It's not a pretty picture and one wants to believe it less important than Lemann and many applicants and their parents think. Much of the book appeared in a series of articles in the New Yorker and, unfortunately, is not much better than the sum of its parts. But I still heartily recommend this book. It puts our elite in focus and gives perspective to one of the most debated issues of our time--affirmative action.
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on November 6, 1999
If you read this book, please also read Thomas Sowell's recent Quest for Cosmic Justice. Lemann spends this whole book trying to figure out how some undefined "we" (by which he means people of his own academic and cultural background) can arrange life and society so that money, power, prestige, etc. are distributed and redistributed "fairly" without ever defining what that is.
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.
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on June 1, 2014
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 between. It is also full of fascinating historical facts as it traces the history of college-admissions testing and its impact on society.

The Big Test asks big questions: not just on testing but about the structure of opportunity in America and how it came to be tied far more closely in the 20th century to the formal education system. In exploring the origins and evolution of the contemporary "meritocracy," the book examines education's contradictory roles of selecting an elite and extending equal opportunity to all.

The afterword to the paperwork edition serves as a manifesto on the need to redesign the present American meritocracy, which Lemann calls "an elite-selection system that accidentally got turned into a mass-opportunity system." In re-engineering the system to put opportunity ahead of sorting, he suggests, we should aim to confer "as little lifelong tenure on the basis of youthful promise as possible."

That would mean that K-12 schooling would no longer not regarded as a race for the goodies at the end--entry to a top-tier selective college and the seemingly lifelong perks that confers. If we insist on seeing life as a race, Lemann says, then the end of formal schooling should be the start, not the finish line.

The result would be that, "The elite would have a constantly shifting, rather than stable and permanent, membership. Successful people would have less serene careers than they have now, and this would give them more empathy for people whose lives don't go smoothly."
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on May 9, 2000
This book really is a secret history. The author is talking about a single test which has a huge impact on millions of people. The implications of the SAT are huge, but the reasoning behind it is something that is rarely mentioned explicitly. The author explains it all... It isn't that Lemann is simply against the SAT. This book isn't that polemical. We get the background of the test. The story of American education. I learned alot from that. I did not know that Yale limited the number of minorities and women up until the 60s. And that the children of alumni really were favored. You tend to think that things were always the way they are now ... And I also believed the testing service when they said that you can't cram for the SAT. Wrong.. And the discussion of affirmative action is right on target too. In a lot of ways people aren't given equal opportunities, and then when they are left behind the meritocracy says it is their fault...This book is very readable and thought provoking. The only thing I can say against it is like a previous poster, it is a little slow to start off with. But it picks up quickly enough, I thought.
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on February 27, 2000
I'm not sorry to have read "The Big Test", but I expected much more policy analysis and moral light from the book than was shed. The first chapters outline the birth and underpinnings of the SAT and are slow going. One senses that an objective ability test was a step above the prep school WASP pipeline to Ivy League schools that the SAT tried to replace. The SAT was a boon to gifted students of the Baby Boom generation who attended public schools and came from a larger geographic area. Yet the irony emerges that the people who most benefitted from the perks they received due to high SAT scores were among its greatest critics. And this leads to a sustained discussion at the end of attempts to dismantle affirmative action which the author presents as an antidote to the high priority given to SAT scores. The two narrative threads do not connect very well and there seems to be a huge gap between the themes of the book. Some obvious points are missed: SAT scores are just one of many things admissions committee looks at to get a composite pictures of candidates; many people in America who don't attend Ivy League colleges are enormously successful and many who do live quiet lives of academic and economic desparation. The many mavericks who take off and succeed without prestiguous degrees is simply not discussed in this book. More often than not, employers look at what an applicant can do rather than transcripts (though admittedly it opens doors). One of our most popular Presidents, Ronald Reagan, graduated from podunk university and George W. Bush showed few intellectual gifts outside of his privileged family background. American culture holds a special place for those who take risks (like Bezos of -- I have no idea where he went to college) and special talents (a la Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola who went to state universities in California, not Ivy League institutions). In summary, The Big Test makes for interesting reading and has some insight into the role of testing in our education system, but ultimately misses the larger picture of who succeeds in America and why.
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on December 20, 2014
a dry narrative on one of social science's most destructive "measures" of American intelligence ever developed. meant by design or unconsciously to force conformity to the middle-class perspective . . . and therefore to keep those who haven't adapted or been exposed or an inheritor kept out of the meritocracy . . . historically Anglo-American, of course.
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