Bad Aptitude

The S.A.T., America's greatest experiment with social engineering, was successful beyond its creators' wildest imaginings; and therein lies the problem.

The Big Test
William Morrow; 662 pages; $27.50

For social science to seem scientific, the first requirement is that people have numbers. The hard part is inventing human attributes, other than height and weight and age, that can be expressed numerically. The other hard part is convincing people that the numbers ultimately assigned to them are both meaningful and accurate. For example, though one can imagine such a number as an individual kindness quotient (KQ) – arrived at through meticulous personality testing – it’s a fair bet that KQs would never catch on, since few of us would be willing, without a fight, to accept a low score for ourselves or a high score for our enemy. We like to think we can judge such hazy qualities on our own, without the help of experts.

Intelligence is another story, however. At some point in the middle of the century, millions of Americans grew convinced that not only weren’t they personally capable of rating their own and others’ braininess, but that there were other people – scientists – who could rate mental performance, and who deserved to. What’s more, we agreed (for a time, at least) to let the experts’ rankings determine our fates, from what sort of education we received to what sort of jobs we got afterwards. Incredible! What could account for such mass passivity? It’s as though Americans had let some institute, armed with computers and a well-paid staff, choose their mates for them. And yet it happened. We opened the envelopes, read our SAT scores, and classified ourselves accordingly, adding strings of digits to our identities that some of us will remember until we die.

The story of the SAT, its origins, justifications, and effects, is the subject of Nicholas Lemann’s The Big Test, as fascinating a book as will appear this year. It does what the best political books do: restores the aura of mystery to a taken-for-granted social institution, namely American higher education. Everything that at first seems natural about our universities and colleges and the “meritocracy” they’ve spawned feels, after reading Lemann, like a dream. And a slightly archaic dream at that. The victory of the best and brightest over the rich and connected (assuming that it has actually taken place) was neither accident nor evolution, Lemann reveals, but conscious conspiracy. A conspiracy by one elite – the eastern “Episcopacy,” as Lemann calls it, consisting of high-born Protestant white males – to engineer its replacement by a new elite in a way that the old one could control and, ever afterwards, take credit for.

The book starts like a novel, introducing two partners in social engineering whose names the reader has probably never heard: James Bryant Conant, a president of Harvard University, and Henry Chauncey, the architect and head of the Educational Testing Service (ETS). Conant has a problem that he calls upon Chauncey to help solve: Harvard is, to put it simply, a mess.

The students are barely worthy of the name, a bunch of richy-rich, hard-drinking party boys from a limited number of “good” families, trained at “good” schools. If America’s social arteries aren’t to harden, a way must be found to introduce new blood into its academic heart. The solution: a number of merit-based scholarships. Conant’s vision is Jeffersonian: He dreams of creating a new and vibrant class of public-minded intellectuals, selected for ability, not wealth. What he needs is a test to sort the applicants – a test that will measure intrinsic ability, intelligence itself.

That’s where Chauncey comes in. The poorest boy at Groton, his private school, Chauncey is both a blue blood and an underdog. He resides at the bottom of the top, that is, whence he has an unobstructed view of those at the top of the bottom. The brains. The gifted ones. The boys whom Conant is looking to recruit. For Chauncey, an ambitious technocrat who lacks his mentor’s sweeping social idealism, the challenge is scientific, not political. He couldn’t care less about how his tests are used, as long as they’re widely used. His own dream is to rank and inventory the nation’s entire sentient population, resulting in a national mental census. Despite his patriotism and Christianity, one can imagine him going to work for Hitler as easily as for the president of Harvard.

The result of Chauncey’s work and Conant’s patronage is the SAT, just one among many competing IQ tests that took the country by storm after the war, when the GI Bill was swelling college enrollment. Lemann traces in detail the maneuvers by which Chauncey made the SAT pre-eminent, lobbying university officials, winning government contracts, and defending the test’s “scientific” reputation. What begins as an almost philosophical quest – to unseat the oligarchy in a silent intellectual coup – soon becomes a commercial enterprise with an idealistic sheen. By stages, Chauncey abandons his old goal of pigeonholing the populace and settles for scoring the “scholastic aptitude” of its incoming freshmen. Lemann, who later comes right out and says that he finds the whole project of dubious value, narrates this process sympathetically while keeping a dry, ironic distance. He wants us to appreciate the grandeur of Chauncey’s project as well as its hubris. He tries to show both its promise and its faint foolishness.

So ends Act One. The SAT triumphant. Act Two is a tale of unintended consequences, and it’s just as suspenseful, though more complex. Lemann follows the stories of individuals whose lives the test changes: women, Jews, and Asians whose SAT scores take them rapidly to the top, into the empty, still-warm chairs of the decrepit Protestant elite. In some ways, the test proves more successful in advancing the humble and the outcast than its own designers dreamed, but in another, crucial way it fails. Black kids don’t do well on the SAT. And no one quite knows why. The dirty little secret of IQ testing – that its inventors were often eugenicists, convinced that intelligence had racial underpinnings – leaks out of the closet and stains everything. Lawsuits are filed by public-interest groups. Worse, the test scores foment resentment among the high achievers themselves by pitting them against lower-scoring affirmative-action candidates. By providing people with a standard measurement of their alleged mental worthiness, the SAT gave winners a new and powerful stick to swing at losers.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way, but Lemann views the tragedy as inevitable, given the test’s original assumptions. Should a democracy be in the business of creating elites of any kind? He thinks not, and he offers a different vision. But perhaps he overestimates the sturdiness of the SAT-based meritocracy that he wishes to see deposed. Already, in Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and other market-mad gold fields of the nineties, test scores and Ivy League credentials seem to carry far less weight than they do, or did, on Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and in Washington. The lords of academe and highbrow journalism may continue to argue among themselves about the shape of public policy, re-examining first principles and shunting government money here and there, but more and more of the game is beyond their control.

Bad Aptitude