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
“I use The Big Test in my Perspectives on Secondary Education class. It makes students come face-to-face with issues of race, class, and inequality in secondary education, and since everyone has taken ‘the big test,’ it really hits home.” —Susan Semel, Associate Professor, Hofstra University
“An engaging, enlightening historical analysis of the idea of the SAT, dramatized by the stories of the people who designed it, the students who benefited from it, and recent battles over standardized testing and affirmative action.”—Wendy Kaminer, The Boston Globe
“Engrossing . . . . The narrative of The Big Test is carried along by a string of life stories [that] once more display Nicholas Lemann's talent for distilling social analysis out of personal history.”—Alan Ryan, The New York Review of Books