"The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy," by Nicholas Lemann. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. 368 pages. $27.
Nicholas Lemann started out thinking he would probably write a history of the Educational Testing Service, the organization that markets the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) to prospective university students. Somehow, he persuaded the management at the secretive organization to open its archives to him. What he found turned out to be fascinating.
But alert readers will note that the title of Lemann's new book says nothing specifically about the Educational Testing Service, and fails to mention the SAT by name. That is because as Lemann learned a lot about the organization and its famous test, he found a much larger theme for his book.
The theme can be summarized like this: Testing during the last half of the 20th century has done much more than measure the intelligence of individual students. It has become a tool of the educational establishment to form an intellectual aristocracy within the American democracy. The term caste system is usually associated with India, but Lemann makes a strong case that the SAT has been used to create a caste system in the United States.
As Lemann explains the phenomenon, those who do well on the test are frequently from well-to-do families that stress learning and can pay for top-notch secondary schools when necessary. The children of those families then go on to a university. After graduation, they tend to prosper, as their parents prospered.
The flip side, Lemann says, is that low-income families produce children who tend to perform poorly on the SAT, which means they might not attend a university. The SAT accentuates economic and racial divisions.
This is not a new argument. What is new is the proof. Many of the past writers positing a linkage between so-called achievement tests and a virtual caste system have grounded their case in ideology. Lemann grounds his case in superb reporting.
Lemann's previous book, published in 1991, is a similar intellectual tour de force grounded in superb reporting. That book carried the title "The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America." It provided new meaning to the decades-old phenomenon of mostly low-income African-Americans moving from lifelong homes in the rural South to substandard housing in the urban North. "The Promised Land" is one of the most impressive non fiction books I have read in my 51 years.
"The Big Test" is nearly as impressive. Again, Lemann has uncovered lots of individual facts, then stitched them together to create a new reality. Much of the book revolves around the most elite university in the land, Harvard--from which Lemann graduated in 1976 with a degree in American history and literature.
The president of Harvard around World War II was James Bryant Conant, who had dreams of creating a new American elite based on brains rather than inherited wealth. Conant tapped an obscure Harvard scholar named Henry Chauncey to implement the testing of that plan.
Lemann follows the thinking of Conant and Chauncey on the East Coast, later shifts the scene to the California university system and makes many other stops in places like Iowa to make his case. He captivates readers not only with great reporting, but also fine writing. This is about as good as it gets when a journalist looks to history to explain contemporary society.
Steve Weinberg is writing a biography of Ida M.Tarbell for St. Martin's Press. He is editor of a bimonthly magazine on information-gathering published by Investigtive Reporters and Editors, based at the University of Missouri. He is the author of seven nonfiction books, including "Telling the Untold Story: How Investigative Reporters are Changing the Craft of Biography."
Pub Date: 10/24/99