Megan Harlan
October 22, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy

Current Status
In Season

We gave it an A

While most know the Educational Testing Service by its all-important college entrance exam, the SAT, who’d guess that its history could make such a lively, fascinating read? In 1948, idealistic Harvard dean Henry Chauncey founded the ETS with utopian visions of replacing the moneyed elite with a meritocracy by testing for intellectual aptitude.

But since it’s difficult to differentiate ability from the benefits of good education, standardized tests are fraught with inherent weaknesses. Journalist Lemann lucidly explores the unintended outcome of Chauncey’s experiment — that the exams have tended to reinforce the social status quo along class and racial lines. In lieu of a 1600, this enlightening study gets an A.

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