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The big test : the secret history of the American meritocracy
Lemann, Nicholas.
Adult Nonfiction LB3051 .L44 1999

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From Publishers' Weekly:

In a country obsessed with educational opportunity, the principal institution for overseeing the distribution of access to higher education, the Educational Testing Service, was founded in "an atmosphere of intrigue, corruption, competition, and disorder." So contends Lemann (The Promised Land) in this enthralling, detailed story of how the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) became enshrined in U.S. culture. Although the idealistic, patrician pioneers of testing may have wished to displace the entitlements of birth and wealth for what they saw as the more democratic entitlements of scholastic aptitude, at the end of the 20th century "their creation looks very much like what it was intended to replace." This story is compelling in itself, but Lemann's exploration of how the politics of American meritocracy turn on the issue of race makes his history absolutely indispensable to current affirmative action and education debates. Lemann's treatment of the 1996 battle over California's anti-affirmative action Proposition 209 convincingly shows how what is nominally a democratic process actually works. The current crises in American education have deep roots: "America had channeled all the opportunity through the educational system and then had failed to create schools and colleges that would work for everybody, because that was very expensive and voters didn't want to pay for it." The real costs of this situation are now clear; anyone concerned about it should heed this book. Agent, Amanda Urban, ICM. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

From Library Journal:

This book treats two distinctive but distinctly interrelated themes in which Lemann (The Great Migration) has evinced sustained interest: educational opportunity in America as it determines socioeconomic success and (in)equity as it reflects educational opportunity. Lemann does not altogether succeed in integrating these two stories. For lengthy stretches, this book is about the ostensible development of an objective elite through standardized testing and the establishment of Educational Testing Service (ETS) and its major product, the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), as an American state religion. Lemann shows how a handful of eccentric, Depression-reared members of the WASP elite went about reforming access to Ivy League education by pushing their confidence in the quantitative social sciences to the point where SAT scores, not family origin, became what mattered most to young adults' chances. As Lemann relates that history, he interjects the personal stories of a later generation of eccentrics at Yale and Harvard Law in the 1960s who fought to make access to higher education yet more inclusive. Finally, Lemann makes clear that the SAT and civil rights come out of egalitarian impulses that might each resist the other. Lemann's work in the archives of ETS is commendable, and overall this is an important contribution to American sociology by a lay journalist. Recommended for academic, public, and high school libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/99.]ÄScott H. Silverman, Bryn Mawr Coll. Lib., PA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

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