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THE BIG TEST: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy.

THE BIG TEST: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy. N. Lemann, New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1999. 406 pp. $27.00. If you are fascinated by how the SAT, and thereby the Educational Testing Service (ETS), came to hold such a sway over education in the United States, then this is the book for you. Lemann details the story of how and why the SAT became such a large part of the college application process. He does this by telling the intersecting stories of a number of people, both famous and relatively unknown, who were central to its inception.

Lemann claims this is a story that has never been told (because of the public's lack of access to ETS files). No doubt it has never been told in such a thorough way, but Clarence Karier did review the history of U.S. standardized testing in a 1976 article. Karier made a number of the same points that Lemann does: that replacing one set of elites based on family (the aristocracy) with another based on intellect as determined by test scores (the meritocracy) is inherently undemocratic; that the SAT very narrowly measures aptitude (or merit); that standardized test scores reflect family income; and that using such tests allows schools to claim "objectivity" while maintaining a sorting and stratifying system.

As someone who is interested in the question of whether U.S. education serves to equalize opportunities or merely reproduce the status quo, I found the weaving of personal stories into the history of standardized testing to be fascinating and powerful ... if a bit lengthy. If Lemann's book had stopped here, it would have been a thoughtful and well-rendered tale. When, however, he goes on in part 2 to link the history of the SAT and ETS with that of affirmative action, the narrative begins to get a bit muddled. Although it is clear--eventually--that the two stories are linked, I cannot help but question whether these two stories are best told in this way.

In the book's third section, Lemann offers his views on what a true American meritocracy should entail. His vision would, to a large degree, do away with the testing and sorting function of schools, and instead go about providing equal educational opportunity. However, he does not suggest how this might be achieved, other than suggesting development of a national curriculum so that all students could be tested on the same subject matter.

If Lemann had talked with teachers and students about the havoc the standardized testing movement has wreaked on schools--and examined the existing alternatives--perhaps he could have provided a model in which all schools achieve excellence and maintain equity for all students, in a way that makes schools an interesting place to learn! I agree with Lemann's assertion that we are a very long way from this vision. If our country's leacters had sided early on with John Adams instead of Thomas Jefferson, Lemann argues, we might be in a very different situation today. When Jefferson suggested the idea of a natural aristocracy ("raking the geniuses from the rubbish" as he quaintly put it), Adams; pointed out that picking just the right aristocrats for the U.S. was a fundamentally flawed notion that distracted us from the obvious point: a democratic nation shouldn't have an aristocracy at all!

If you have a strong interest in the history of standardized testing and / or affirmative action, you'll want to read The Big Test. If you are not a serious student of these issues, you may instead want to read Newsweek's "The truth about testing" (Sept. 6, 1999), which includes a brief, but excellent, overview of the ideas in Lemann's book. Reviewed by Leigh M. O'Brien, Associate Professor, Education, Nazareth College, Rochester, NY
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:O'Brien, Leigh M.
Publication:Childhood Education
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2001
Next Article:EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION: Building a Philosophy for Teaching.

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