A Culture of Obsession

A Culture of Obsession

by Mr. Quick -
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Saga of the SAT: A Culture of Obsession


In 1974, Allan Nairn, future critic of the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and its most widely recognized test, the SAT, was a senior in a New Jersey public high school. He was faced with teachers, parents and fellow students who treated the exam with the cutthroat intensity of battle and who viewed its results as the leading ticket to or barrier from a better life. But while Nairn's scores helped grant him a ticket rather than a barrier and he enrolled in Princeton the next year, he was severely troubled by what Nicholas B. Lemann '76, a former Crimson president, refers to in his new book, The Big Test, as the creepy "culture of obsession" surrounding the SAT. In 1999, I am sure that many of us have felt this same concern. 

Quirky and unusually personal, The Big Test begins as a history of standardized testing and the SAT, but necessarily, it becomes a history of America's philosophy of education, exposing the direct and divisive conflict between our country's sacred values of opportunity and justice for all. A complex, interconnected web of personalities, Lemann's book follows the lives and accomplishments of a series of figures ranging from the early proponents of standardized testing to a few of the first women and minorities accepted into the educational elite on the basis of their performance on the exams. 

Through these stories, Lemann brings us back to a time when the seemingly omnipresent acronyms of high school--SAT and AP, but also Kaplan and the Princeton Review--were struggling to establish themselves, explicitly demonstrating that the answers to questions of educational and testing philosophy were not obvious, and therefore need not be permanent. The past seemed just as confusing at the time as the present seems today, a fact that people often forget when studying history as a series of already completed events. 

This treatment of history, of course, requires a careful reader willing to recognize the author's point of view and take his judgments with a grain of salt. But this approach is still more useful than statements of fact, and less boring. Through personal stories, Lemann is able to address the problems arising from American values without mounting direct and unfounded attacks on the beliefs themselves. He is, therefore, able to present a subtle and complex argument, recognizing both the merits and the problems with different social constructions without sounding indecisive. 

The Big Test is an adept criticism of America's current educational philosophy--a cultural obsession with "making it," symbolized by the intensely scrutinized SAT. But the SAT is only a portion of "the big test" of Lemann's title. In his book, Lemann argues convincingly that the academic elitism of the American meritocracy, structured by its system of higher education, never lived up to its morally defensible Jeffersonian ideal of educating an intellectual few who would serve and advance the national community. Rather, the current system of selection for higher education based on the related criteria of academic performance, scholastic aptitude and IQ, has become a method of distributing society's pecuniary rewards to a select few without regard to future public service. 

While The Big Test provides a well-articulated, in depth view of the cultural history leading to today's SAT-mania and reward-based educational system, however, Lemann's conclusions are not entirely satisfactory. 

Lemann calls for more explicit discussion of what qualities should be included in "merit," and by extension, which qualities should be rewarded in an ideal meritocratic society. But in emphasizing the importance of creativity, determination and other non-academic personal qualities, he stumbles dangerously close to supporting a system in which advancement is determined primarily by subjective criteria. The danger is, of course, that the judgment of "character" could easily spawn more discrimination and favoritism than the judgment of "intelligence." 

Especially troubling is his identification of "moral worth" as a quality which should be rewarded in an ideal meritocracy. While this opinion makes intuitive sense, its implementation as a criterion for selecting outstanding individuals would be much more discriminatory than the use of intelligence tests. For all of its inadequacies, the SAT does not attempt to test opinions. Any selection based on "morals," on the other hand, would reward those who agree with those in power about what is and is not "morally good." Suddenly, anyone who is pro-choice or pro-life, a fundamentalist or an atheist, could be excluded--an unacceptable obstruction of our country's freedom of speech and of thought. 

Lemann's argument, to be fair, is not that Americans should be judged by character in college admissions, but rather that college admissions should not be the defining test in a person's life. But here, again, he runs into problems. If, as Lemann suggests, we take the extreme view that people should always be judged by performance rather than potential, we must provide everyone with precisely the same opportunity to perform. But providing everyone in the nation with exactly the same education would be a disservice both to those who would benefit from more rigorous academic training and to those who would be best served by vocational training or the opportunity to explore more creative educational alternatives. Different people reach their full potential in different environments. Not everyone would be happy taking courses at Harvard. The environments that people choose for themselves, ideally, should have equal social standing. To believe that they will any 
time soon is probably naive, but by trying to fit everyone into the same mold, we would only reduce the chances that each individual will find an appropriate educational environment. 

A less extreme statement of the principle that performance should be valued over potential is sound, but Lemann's statement that this principle is blatantly violated in today's America is not entirely convincing. Certainly, higher education is strongly linked to money and power and an impressive college credential carries weight. But Americans rarely work at the same job their entire lives these days. Our entire lives are tests, and to whatever end, the college-educated workforce is a driven population. 

To support his ideal of a "true" American meritocracy, Lemann calls for a change to content-based college admissions exams. These tests would emphasize mastery of a nationally-established curriculum instead of "learning tricks to outwit multiple-choice aptitude exams." If he feels that this system would be less likely to discriminate against students in poorly run schools and less likely to be twisted by test preparation courses available to the rich, he is truly naive. The SATs are certainly not uncoachable, as ETS once claimed, but they are less dependent upon coaching than tests about subjects in history and chemistry. 

Nicholas Lemann wants educational opportunity for everyone. He wants less emphasis on the "right" colleges and less hysteria about and dependency on standardized testing. He wants a society in which achievement need not be academic or youthful to be rewarded. In short, he wants students who are learning rather than earning grades. I absolutely agree. But in trying to reach these goals, he advocates a system at once even more divisive based on educational background and even less adept at providing young Americans with the opportunity to work hard and reach their potential later in life. In any case, The Big Test is an interesting contribution to a discussion about America's educational philosophy that probably deserves more of our active thought and attention. 


By RUTH A. MURRAY