Skimming Off the Best Brains: The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy

Monday, May 1, 2000 - 12:00

By Nicholas Lemann
(New York: Farrar, Styraus and Giroux, 406 pages, $27.00)
reviewed by Joanne V. Creighton

Featured in the Spring 2000 issue of The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education

The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy by Nicholas Lemann (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999, 406pp) is a big, important, deeply researched book about the origins and growing ascendancy of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) in the college admissions process and its role in creating what Lemann calls the "American meritocracy."

"Meritocracy," a term of contempt coined by Britisher Michael Young, is the idea that a society's leadership and rewards go to a "natural aristocracy" of the smart and the capable rather than to an entrenched aristocracy of power and privilege. (In Young's futuristic fantasy, The Rise of the Meritocracy, published in 1958, the low-IQ masses bloodily overthrow their meritocratic masters.)

On the face of it, an American meritocracy would seem to be the very embodiment of the American dream of a fluid, mobile society where people rise on their innate merits. Yet it is Lemann's argument, articulated explicitly in the polemical "afterword" to the volume, that the SAT is a poor instrument to select that meritocracy, because it uses a narrow and flawed measure of "academic aptitude" rather than "wisdom, or originality, or humor, or toughness, or empathy, or common sense, or independence, or determination--let alone moral worth." Moreover, he believes that the very idea of a meritocracy is fundamentally opposed to the equalitarian values of a democracy, especially because the self-interested new elite looks "more and more like what it was intended to replace."

Put simply, Lemann's argument is that even though the SAT is a deeply flawed test (both "simple and confusing at the same time [in] its tendency to induce uncontrollable, anxious second- guessing on the part of the taker"), those who score best on it get into the best schools and subsequently secure the best jobs and enjoy a disproportional share of America's material rewards. Something is wrong with this picture: the needs of society as a whole are ignored, and universities are compromised because they have "evolved into a national personnel department" whose "main sentiment is probably a somewhat oxymoronic liberal elitism--a fierce, competitive protectiveness toward their privileged position combined with discomfort over their role as a generator of wondrous economic advancement of their graduates."

Weaving into his capacious narrative the life stories of key individuals over a period of fifty years, Lemann tells the "secret history" of how this Big Test came to have such weight in predetermining the fate of young people -- "secret" not because there was any cover-up, but because it happened without public discussion, debate, or governmental backing.

He starts with the aspirations of Henry Chauncey, a Harvard dean who was a zealot of testing, and James Bryant Conant, President of Harvard, who, disenchanted with the sons of the wealthy establishment, idealistically embraced a vision of a Jeffersonian "natural aristocracy" --leaders selected on the basis of intelligence rather than ancestry. They looked to the SAT to help to find talented young people for Harvard and other Ivy League schools and later established the Educational Testing Service, with Chauncey as its brilliantly effective president.

The SAT was created in the 1920's out of an army intelligence test by Carl Brigham, an ardent eugenicist and unabashed racist and anti-semite. Author of A Study of American Intelligence, he held that there were three distinct white races -- Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean, whose descending order of intelligence was reflected in testing, and he warned that American intelligence was declining and would do so at an accelerated rate "as the racial mixture becomes more and more extensive."

But at the same time that Chauncey and Conant were embracing the SAT, Brigham was rejecting his previous theories and what he called "one of the most glorious fallacies in the history of science, namely that the tests measured native intelligence purely and simply without regard to training or school. . . . .The test scores very definitely are a composite including schooling, family background, familiarity with English, and everything else, relevant and irrelevant." But Brigham died at age of fifty-two in 1943, effectively removing the roadblock to establishing the new testing agency.

Others too at various times, notably Ralph Nader and journalists Chuck Stone and Steven Brill, argued that the test was unfair to disadvantaged students, but its reliability (producing roughly the same score in different versions) and its validity in predicting grades in the first year of college, along with Chauncey's administrative skill and other fortuitous circumstances, led to the growing institutionalization of the SAT in college admissions across the country.

Starting in the 1950's, Stanley Kaplan taught students how to improve their scores through prep courses and proved once again that the SAT did not measure innate intelligence pure and simple. Over the years, as the test became more and more an arbiter of fate, the "privileged denizens of Park Avenue" Conant was trying to strip of advantage "were now trying like mad to manipulate testing and admissions on behalf of their children," hiring SAT tutors and getting doctors to certify their children as learning- disabled and therefore eligible for untimed SATs. Even more pernicious was the way a SAT score labelled a young person with a "badge of merit" or demerit: "Whoever got a high score was forever adjudged smart (including internally), and whoever got a low score, dumb. Everyone treated you differently once they knew your score--teachers, other kids, even your own family." But the biggest problem with the SAT was that some groups with ongoing, long-standing histories of deeply inferior schools and deprived backgrounds, notably Blacks and Hispanics, did poorly.

Concentrating the second half of his book on the inherent tension between the emerging meritocratic system and the goals of the civil rights movement of the 1960's, Lemann notes that "race was the area that threw the contradiction between the idea of the system (that it would fully deliver on the promise of American democracy) and the reality of it (that it apportioned opportunity on the basis of a single, highly background-sensitive quality) into the starkest relief."

Affirmative action developed as a "low-cost patch solution" to this problem. Following the careers of young Asian-American and Black protagonists, Lemann traces the rise and fall of affirmative action in California. In the 1978 Bakke v. Regents of the University of California case, the Supreme Court allowed race to be one of the criteria used in admission selection, but it was a finely grained, close-vote decision. Moreover, using multiple criteria was easier for well-staffed admissions offices at private schools to put into effect, more difficult for public schools where the temptation was strong to use a lower SAT requirement for minorities. Proposition 209 put an end to any preferential treatment based on race in California, and so began a revolution against affirmative action which is now moving across the country.

The problem, however, is not with affirmative action, but with the SAT itself, as Lemann's book makes abundantly clear. The Big Test exposes the profound and largely deleterious impact this test has had on American culture and education. We in colleges and universities must choose our students with a less blunt instrument of selection. In order to educate all students well, we must also hold fast to our commitment to affirmative action and seek out students who reflect the socio-economic, cultural, and racial diversity of our pluralistic world.

Finally, I should note, however, that Lemann attacks not just the SAT but the very idea of selective colleges. He believes that the "culture of frenzy" surrounding admissions to selective institutions "is destructive and anti-democratic; it warps the sensibilities and distorts the education of the millions of people whose lives it touches." His goal is to "close the gap" between the more and less selective colleges which "will make the United States a better country and one that more fully uses the talents of its people."

Unlike Lemann, I do not believe that selectivity must be sacrificed to an egalitarian ideal. While, to be sure, we want to raise the quality of all of our educational institutions, some differentiation among them in quality and mission is good and inevitable. (Nor do I believe that admission to a selective college is quite the entry into the world of money and power that Lemann assumes, especially in today's entrepreneurial information age.) In short, there was nothing wrong with James Bryant Conant's vision of selecting promising young people, regardless of background, for high quality education and encouraging them to be engaged citizens and leaders. The error was to hitch this dream to the SAT.