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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1734

The furious controversies swirling around SAT-type examinations are often reduced to a simple formula: merit versus diversity. The men and occasional woman who pioneered the tests that would break the near-monopoly on elite education held by the heirs to power and privilege certainly did not foresee this conflict. They had viewed testing as a near-miraculous means of selecting talented youth from the middle and lower classes who, through education, would be trained as the new American governing elite.

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The concept of a “meritocracy” emerged from various social science theories that date back to the beginning of the twentieth century, including social Darwinism, eugenics, intelligence quotient (IQ) testing, and educational reform. The “science” aspect of social science led many to dream of remaking society along more rational and humane lines; simultaneously, the Progressive movement emphasized the need for reforms that would clean up politics, the environment, and moral life. Mass testing of American recruits during World War I had produced results that were reassuring to New England intellectuals and politicians. Further testing during World War II trained the specialists who would make academic testing a rite of passage for every succeeding generation of students.

Henry Chauncey, a WASP to the last drop of his blue blood, a Groton graduate who believed deeply in the school’s credo, “to serve is to reign,” and a member of the dominant Episcopalian elite, was foremost among these specialists. In 1933, he became an assistant dean at Harvard University, where James Bryant Conant had just become president.

Conant was dissatisfied with the shallowness of undergraduate life at Harvard, where too many rich playboys came from preparatory schools well prepared for the essay-style college board examination but thereafter interested only in dancing, drinking, and fraternity high jinks. Conant wanted to bring in good midwestern boys. However, they performed poorly on the examination, and the only means around it—admitting anyone in the top seventh of his class—only lured too many young men who quickly dropped out. Conant told Chauncey and his fellow dean, Wilbur Bender, to find a better method of winnowing the best candidates for admission.

Chauncey and Bender hastened to Princeton, where Carl Campbell Brigham had developed the SAT in 1926. An enthusiastic eugenicist, Brigham had initially believed that Nordics would always test higher than other groups, with mixed groups and African Americans scoring at the bottom. He worried greatly that American test scores were going down in the 1920’s. By 1928, however, he had changed his mind about the biological basis for IQ testing and was concentrating solely on the SAT’s predictive function in higher education.

Brigham’s great foe was Ben Wood, the technical expert who, with William Learned, had popularized standardized mass testing through the Cooperative Test Service, which specialized in easy scoring of multiple choice examinations. Brigham saw the Harvard experiment as the opportunity to display the superiority of aptitude testing over achievement testing. He succeeded so well that Chauncey was soon able to persuade other Ivy League schools to join in wider testing of high school seniors. However, an obstacle to expanding the system suddenly arose: Brigham had begun to worry about the implementation of his invention. When Brigham died in 1943 at age fifty-two, Chauncey was free to move ahead to national testing.

Conant, meanwhile, had come across an 1813 letter from former president Thomas Jefferson to John Adams containing the phrase “the natural aristocracy,” which should provide the nation with its future governmental leadership. This concept formed the corollary of Jefferson’s idea of free public education that was embodied in the University of Virginia. Adams ridiculed the idea that the educated man was naturally the best ruler; he had long since detected the despotic flaw in the Platonic Republic, and he had no desire to see it established in the new American democracy. Conant, nevertheless, was inspired by Jefferson’s vision and spent the rest of his life arguing for a new classless America where men and women would be rewarded on the basis of talent and accomplishment rather than birth and preferment. Eventually, Conant would argue for a 100 percent inheritance tax that would eliminate hereditary wealth.

The G.I. Bill was exactly the kind of program that Conant had in mind for transforming the nation, if only a means could be devised to ascertain which veterans would benefit most from education, since educating everyone was not financially sustainable in the distant future. After agonizing negotiations and false starts, in 1948 the competing testing programs created the Educational Testing Service (ETS), to be located in Princeton, New Jersey. Chauncey became president and Conant served as chair of the board. Contracts began to arrive, but because ETS was a nonprofit, public service agency, it lost money until the Selective Service System employed ETS to develop tests for potential draftees during the Korean War.

Chauncey failed in his efforts to progress beyond what detractors called IQ testing. Henry Murray’s personality research and Isabel Myers’s type indicator were eventually dropped, only to become important later in their own right. The Test of Developed Ability also failed, which disappointed Chauncey, who had wanted a means of testing problem-solving aptitude that would gauge a level of abstract ability unreachable by multiple- choice questions. The Iowa Every-Pupil Test did succeed here, but it was used only as a guidance tool for midwestern students, not as a selection device.

Chauncey had more pressing matters to attend. First, the National Merit Scholarship test awarded to ETS provoked protests from commercial test-makers, who saw the nonprofit status of ETS as unfair competition. In 1958, the great IRS investigation emerged and extended into the 1960’s. Then the ACT, which was developed in Iowa to measure achievement, became a major competitor in the Midwest, requiring ETS to compete nationally and sell its program to state university systems everywhere. The biggest competition was in California, the fastest growing state in the country.

By this time, the term “meritocracy” had appeared. Meritocracy was the creation of a Labor Party intellectual, Michael Young, who viewed the new intellectual elite created by testing as a fatal danger to socialist dreams. One could legitimately hate the existing class structure, but a system based on merit would undermine all efforts to achieve societal equality. Not everyone viewed meritocracy as a threat, however. While many critics (and most readers were critical) ridiculed Young’s book, Clark Kerr saw in it a positive vision for a new America—a nation managed by an intellectual elite composed of men and women he would train in his pace-setting university in Berkeley.

By no accident, Kerr invited Conant to lecture at Berkeley, and Conant brought Kerr to Harvard. Their vision was soon sweeping the country. Colleges and universities competed to attract the brightest and brainiest as well as the brawniest and most bestial. Academics had finally achieved parity with athletics.

Kerr’s fall was spectacular. Caught between the Free Speech movement and Governor Ronald Reagan’s hostility, he chose to be fired rather than resign quietly. His subsequent publications at the Carnegie Corporation stressed the need for socioeconomic planning and the importance of testing. Only nobody was listening now.

Although the Civil Rights movement was achieving legal equality in public life, this tended to highlight how far African Americans lagged behind Caucasians in economic status. Civil Rights activists claimed that subtle racism pervaded the system to such an extent that only affirmative action could break through the barriers. In no area was affirmative action more necessary than in education. However, the seemingly scientific SAT stood in the way of getting young African Americans into college. Liberals denounced the test’s “cultural bias,” then questioned the rationale for testing at all. If equality meant equal treatment for everyone, what was the point of aptitude testing?

One minority group who needed no affirmative action was Asian Americans, whose test scores were already significantly higher than those of Caucasians. Caucasians who were angry about being denied admission to elite universities and medical and law schools concentrated their ire on low-scoring African Americans, who returned the resentment. National testing had led to a division in the nation that was somewhat similar to that originally anticipated by the testers, who believed Caucasians would test better than African Americans and northerners better than southerners, yet without the grateful public acceptance they desired.

Most distressing to ETS were the most vocal critics, whose hopes of educational advancement would have been dim without the opportunity to demonstrate their academic promise by excelling in the national tests. It was unclear what educators would do if there were no national system of testing. Would they implement a national curriculum with federal overseers to guarantee that every school system was equally committed to meeting its goals?

Nobody liked that idea. It would be easier to make changes to the SAT to correct for low scores by non-Asian racial minorities. Hearing this proposal, conservative politicians began to exploit public fear of secretive ETS procedures. The Bakke decision, which disallowed quotas but permitted consideration of race as one criterion toward admission, simply required universities to be more circumspect about explaining their guidelines. If the SAT were manipulated, too, educational policy would continue down a road that the public already considered insufficiently lighted and perhaps leading in the wrong direction.

The 1994 California Civil Rights Initiative (later Proposition 209), using the term “reverse discrimination,” threatened the entire structure of affirmative action. Molly Munger and Bill Lee entered the debate at this point. Defenders of the meritocracy, they were concerned that disadvantaged youths were unlikely to achieve the success that their natural talents would allow. President Clinton resolved the matter for the moment with the slogan, “mend it, but don’t end it.” However, he left opponents of Proposition 209 disorganized and underfunded. While he gave no leadership to the opposition, Munger’s feminist allies were alienating political realists. Consequently, despite the Democratic Party victory in the 1996 California election, the initiative passed.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) immediately filed a lawsuit, and President Clinton nominated Lee as assistant attorney general. What, meanwhile, happened to the SAT? Nothing, it turns out. The “Mandarins,” those who have benefited from the status quo, remain in charge. Unequal opportunity remained as before and so, too, did the SAT.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 95 (August, 1999): 1982.

Library Journal 124 (September 1, 1999): 211.

The New Republic 220 (November 29, 1999): 36.

New York 32 (October 11, 1999): 104.

The New York Times Book Review 104 (October 24, 1999): 6.

Publishers Weekly 246 (August 30, 1999): 61.

Time 154 (October 4, 1999): 100.

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