The Meritocracy’s Caste System: What’s Good and Bad about the SAT

Though today’s high school seniors may find it hard to believe, Harvard, Yale, and other leading universities weren’t exactly bastions of the best and brightest before World War II. They educated primarily the progeny of the upper class—white, Protestant, male students, the products of New York and New England private schools, who were often more interested in debutante cotillions and sporting events than in the life of the mind. Many brought servants with them to Cambridge and New Haven.

James Bryant Conant, the president of Harvard University and one of the most influential men of his day, wanted to replace this aristocracy of birth and wealth with what Thomas Jefferson called a “natural aristocracy” of the intellectually gifted from every walk of life, who would be educated to high standards and then be given the responsibility of governing society. The creation of what Conant called “Jefferson’s ideal,” a new intellectual elite selected strictly on the basis of talent, and dedicated to public service, would, he believed, make America a more democratic country.

In 1933, he gave two Harvard administrators the job of developing a nation-wide scholarship program for gifted students. The key to the administrators’ work would be the creation of a single standard for evaluating the astonishing diversity of the country’s high-school students. And the test Conant ultimately selected for that purpose—the newly developed Scholastic Aptitude Test—would become for many students a narrow path to the best opportunities—and richest rewards—in American society.

In The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, Nicholas Lemann reconstructs the extraordinary story of Conant, the SAT, and their roles in making education the central element of opportunity in post-World War II America.

His history is important and timely. A college education is fast becoming necessary to earn the middle-class salaries that workers won with less than a high school diploma in the days of America’s industrial economy. The rise of teenage Internet entrepreneurs notwithstanding, selective colleges and universities represent the way to the top of American society for the majority of those who get accepted. They educate a disproportionate number of the nation’s corporate lawyers, investment bankers, leading doctors, and influential academics, and they rely heavily on SAT scores in the admissions process. Although they do admit some students with low scores, these are emphatically the exception. In telling the story of the people and events that shaped the post-war American meritocracy Lemann, a staff writer at The New Yorker and a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has given us valuable new points of reference with which to consider the role of the SAT in college admissions, affirmative action, and school reform.

Conant selected the SAT, which he believed to be a “mental” or intelligence test, over acheivement tests, created by the developer of the New York Regents exams, to measure a student’s grasp of course content. Achievement tests, he argued, favored unexceptional rich boys (girls weren’t part of Conant’s meritocratic equation) whose parents could buy them top-flight high school instruction.

But there was no national debate over Conant’s drive to create an education-based meritocracy, or to make education “the official repository of opportunity in America” that it is today. Conant achieved his coup with the help of a handful of close colleagues. Ironically, they were all members of what Lemann neatly terms the Episcopacy, the social class whose defining institutions were the Protestant Episcopal Church, country clubs, New England boarding schools, Ivy League colleges, and, in their working lives, investment banks, major foundations, the foreign service, and university faculties—the very same crowd whose duller members Conant was trying to lock out of the garden. Key among them was Henry Chauncey, a square-jawed Harvard assistant dean and descendent of Puritan clergy who would later serve as the founding president of the Educational Testing Service, the giant testing company that Conant created to administer the SAT. Another was Devereaux Josephs, a classmate of Chauncey’s at both the Groton School and Harvard who, as the President of the Carnegie Foundation, funded the creation of ETS for Conant. Together, they substantially redefined the nature of and route to success in America. Writes Lemann: “It was like a slow-motion, invisible constitutional convention whose result would determine the American social structure.”

After Harvard deployed the multiple-choice SAT successfully in pursuit of talent worth subsidizing with scholarships, Conant convinced other Ivy League schools to use it. When the essay exams that the Ivies used to test regular applicants were suspended during World War II and replaced with the SAT, the test’s influence expanded. And when Conant’s advocacy of a new national testing agency culminated with the opening of ETS in Princeton in 1948, his vision of a national test-based meritocracy was assured of becoming a reality.

Prodigious digging in the archives has enabled Lemann to recount events in riveting detail. As he did in his previous book, The Promised Land, the story of the great post-war migration of African-Americans from the rural south to the urban north, Lemann suffuses his historical narrative with fascinating characters—from Reynold Johnson, a young high school science teacher in Ironwood, Mich., whose 1931 experiments led to the electrical devices that quickly score multiple-choice tests (a key catalyst to the rise of a national testing industry), to Stanley Kaplan, the Brooklyn-born son of a plumber and a secretary who by happenstance launched today’s vast SAT test-prep industry. Kaplan had resorted to helping neighborhood students with their schoolwork to support himself after failing to get a place in medical school, even after graduating from City University at the top of his class at age 17. One day in 1946 a student asked him to help her with a test he’d never heard of, and the rest is history.

Lemann’s reporting has also yielded a big scoop. When Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1965, it ordered the federal Office of Education to study the educational status of black students. The study’s lead investigator was James Coleman, a University of Chicago sociologist, who concluded in a now-famous 1966 report that student performance was much more heavily influenced by families than by schools. Lemann reveals here that ETS administered the tests on which Coleman based his conclusions and that ETS analysts largely rejected Coleman’s interpretation of the results. School quality, they concluded, had a much larger influence on student achievement than Coleman acknowledged. They believed that spending money to fix black schools was a smart investment. But they didn’t argue their perspective publicly and Coleman’s conclusion—that spending money on schools was not a smart way to raise black student achievement—dominated the national education debate for the next two decades.

Subsequent research proved the ETS researchers correct; school quality influences student achievement more than Coleman acknowledged. But it wasn’t until the publication of “A Nation At Risk” and other reform reports in the mid-1980s that the nation began to believe that it was worth making a major effort to improve public schools.

To Lemann, Conant’s meritocracy has been a decidedly mixed blessing. It has certainly produced opportunities for millions of gifted students who wouldn’t have had them by dint of birth. He notes that among the very first group of ten Harvard National Scholars graduating in 1938 was James Tobin, the son of the sports-information director at the University of Illinois and a senior at Champaign High School, who would later win the Nobel Prize in Economics. In more recent years, Asian students have benefited tremendously from the SAT.

But Conant’ vision of a governing elite selected through a new, education-based system and devoted to public service in a largely classless society was hopelessly naive. Not surprisingly, the new educated aristocracy has embraced the trappings of its new-found social superiority. Today’s educated elite are disproportionately lawyers, bankers, and doctors, not the dedicated, European-style civil servants that Conant had hoped for. As Lemann says, the American meritocracy has become largely “a means of handing out economic rewards to a fortunate few.”

Much more troubling is the perverse influence the SAT has had on the nation’s elementary and secondary education system. Adapted by Carl Brigham, a Princeton psychology professor, from crude intelligence tests used to sort U.S. Army recruits in World War I, the SAT was first published in 1926. It was a multiple-choice exam emphasizing word recognition (as is the test’s verbal section today; the math section measures students’ ability to reason mathematically and requires knowledge of basic arithmetic, geometry and algebra). But Lemann reveals that as early as 1934 Brigham repudiated the basic premise that the tests measured solely native intelligence. “The test scores very definitely are a composite including schooling, family background, familiarity with English, and everything else, relevant and irrelevant,” Brigham wrote in an unpublished manuscript which Lemann dug out of the ETS archives. ETS and the College Board, the organization of schools and colleges that sponsors the exam, acknowledged as much in 1994, when they finally changed the exam’s name from Scholastic Aptitude Test to Scholastic Assessment Test.

Internal opposition to the SAT didn’t subside as the test’s influence spread rapidly in the decades after Brigham’s change of mind. In the 1960s, a researcher at the College Board who would later become ETS’s senior expert on the technical aspects of testing, argued in a report titled “Criticisms of Testing: Background Papers” that colleges should use the SAT and other ETS tests for placement rather than selection. After the report had been printed, the entire press run was shredded—on whose orders, the author, Win Manning, never learned.

By 1990 Manning was at ETS and arguing that ETS should take steps to reduce affluent students’ advantage on the SAT.

Knowing that students from disadvantaged families tended to score lower on the test, he proposed comparing students’ actual scores to the scores they’d be expected to achieve given their family backgrounds—on the premise that kids who greatly outperformed their class background on the test could be expected to do so in college as well. Manning argued that his idea would align the SAT more closely with Conant’s original aim.

Colleges loved the idea. They saw Manning’s new index as a way of diversifying their campuses without running afoul of the Supreme Court’s Bakke ban on racial quotas. But Nancy Cole, then ETS’s second ranking official and now the organization’s president, responded by cutting off Manning’s funding. “Imagine the hell that would break loose if the idea were instituted and every lawyer’s and doctor’s kid in America got an envelope in the mail containing a score that had been adjusted downward to account for the parents’ high socioeconomic status?” Lemann writes.

Just such a controversy did break out recently, in the wake of press reports that Manning’s idea has been rekindled within ETS. Almost immediately, the College Board’s president, no doubt feeling the heat of Hades, attacked the so-called “Strivers” initiative with vague language about the importance of preserving the “art” of using SAT scores in admissions.

How meritocratic, then, is a test that measures neither innate ability nor course-specific knowledge? The rise of a lucrative test-preparation industry built on families’ willingness to pay thousands of dollars for courses that boost their SAT scores suggests the answer. Writes Lemann: “The very privileged denizens of Park Avenue that Conant thought he was stripping of advantage [are] now trying like mad to manipulate testing and admissions on behalf of their children, and [are] having quite a good deal of success.”

The lingering but false notion that the SAT measures native ability also has undercut teachers’ and students’ belief in the importance of hard work in schools. Indeed, much of what’s measured on the test’s verbal section is easily learned outside of school. Asian education systems, in contrast, are built on the belief that achievement comes from hard work rather than innate capacity. So, working closely with parents, they push all students. And, not surprisingly, average performance is higher than in American schools.

What then is the best way to achieve Conant’s aim of lifting students from disadvantaged backgrounds into the meritocracy’s jet stream so that the nation can reduce its reliance on affirmative-action measures such as ETS’s Strivers scheme? A logical step would be to replace the SAT with high school end-of-course exams based on rigorous state or national curricula. As Lemann argues, “Test-prep should consist of mastering the high school curriculum not learning tricks to outwit multiple-choice aptitude tests.”

Such tests, akin to the French Baccalaureate and the German Abitur, would drive the education system to perform for far more students, to educate them rather than to sort them. To be sure, the tests would favor students in affluent school systems with top teachers, as Conant warned. But Conant’s opposition to achievement tests is outdated in one important respect. Educators today simply don’t try to educate many students to a high level because they believe that most don’t have what it takes to perform. Often educators base these assumptions on their students’ wealth and the color of their skin. And college admission tests thought to measure native intelligence or “developmental verbal and mathematical reasoning abilities” don’t provide teachers any incentive to act differently. Nor do they offer policymakers any incentive to address the gross funding inequities that exist in America’s educational system.

Fortunately, several states are already moving to require end-of-course exams. By 2005, every student in New York will have to pass the state’s rigorous Regents graduation tests, achievement tests developed in the 1920’s by Ben Wood—the man who lost out to Carl Brigham in the competition to write Conant’s Harvard Scholars exam.