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.
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...
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