Worth Reading

University Testing

When first published in 1985, None of the Above was the best book ever written about the SAT. Author David Owen wove devastating facts with engaging rhetoric to create an extremely powerful critical text. Deservedly, it became a "handbook" for the college admissions reform movement.


But over the years, many of Owen's voluminous statistics became outdated, and some fundamental facts about the test, such as the type of questions it covered, changed. Even the name of the exam evolved from "Scholastic Aptitude Test" to "Scholastic Achievement Tests" to just plain SAT. Ultimately, None of the Above went out of print.


Now Marilyn Doerr, a science and math teacher at the University School in Cleveland, has brought the book back to life with a "Revised and Updated" version released in late 1999 by Rowman & Littlefield. The new None of the Above maintains Owen's engaging narrative style while addressing some of the issues, such as gender bias, that have become more prominent in the decade and a half since the first publication. Much of Ms. Doerr's research was done in the FairTest office.


The revision is marred only by an inconsistency in updating some basic facts. At times early 1990's data are still used even when current statistics are readily available. Nonetheless, the updating does extend the life of an important testing reform resource well into the millennium.


In recognition of FairTest's role in making the new edition of None of the Above possible, the publishers are offering a special 20% discount off the $17.95 list price to Examiner readers. To take advantage of this offer, call Rowman & Littlefield at 800/462-6420 and refer to the order code RFAIRTES.


No book about standardized testing has ever received so much popular attention as Nick Lemann's The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy. A cover story in the New York Times Book Review, a PBS "Frontline" program (which prominently featured FairTest), and scores of newspaper columns intensified public focus on the role of the SAT in contemporary society.


Examined closely, The Big Test is really three separate books loosely connected by one college admissions exam. The first 120 pages are the richest history of the SAT ever published. With rare access to Educational Testing Service (ETS) archives and interviews with ETS' first president, Henry Chauncey, Lemann argues that the SAT was a well-motivated experiment that produced unexpected negative consequences. Designed to open the doors of higher education to those not born to the white, male upper class, the test instead created a new "elite" selected for the facility to answer multiple-choice questions.


The middle part of The Big Test examines the expansion of the SAT into the world's best known exam. Important details are provided about the multi-year campaign by ETS and the College Board to have California, home of the nation's biggest public education system, require applicants to take the test. In this section, Lemann's central thesis, the tension between a test-score based "meritocracy" and notions of racial and economic equity, begins to be developed.


The last section focuses on the most prominent example of this conflict, the battle over affirmative action in California. Here the author's style shifts from analyzing major historical themes to a behind-the-scenes review of the campaign against Proposition 209, the ballot question that banned "racial preferences," as seen through the memories of key opponents. Though the SAT is hardly mentioned in the final hundred pages of the book, the notion held by many Prop. 209 proponents that "test scores measure 'merit'" lurks just below the surface.


After nearly 350 pages of engaging narrative, Lemann finally reveals his own alternative to the SAT in a brief afterword titled "A Real Meritocracy." Surprisingly, after demonstrating the harm caused by attempts to organize society around test scores, Lemann endorses college selection through exams based on a mastery of "a nationally agreed-upon curriculum." Not a word is spent applying the lessons of the SAT experience to the potential consequences of such a proposal or to considering the well- documented damage caused by over-reliance on standardized exams in states such as Texas (see related story)


Fortunately, this lapse of logic does not undermine the overall value of The Big Test. Through painstaking research and top quality writing, Nick Lemann has created a helpful tool for those who want to eliminate the SAT as a high-stakes hurdle blocking progress toward equity and educational quality.