A Moral Test

February 01, 2000 5 min read

The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy,by Nicholas Lemann. (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $27.)
When Henry Chauncey became the first president of the fledgling Educational Testing Service in 1948, he had a grand vision: He wanted to develop a series of multiple-choice tests, what he called a “Census of Abilities,” that would sort, categorize, and route every American for his or her appropriate station in life.

The project proved too ambitious—some would say mad—to carry out. But Chauncey—as author Lemann demonstrates in this magisterial work of biography, history, and sociology—managed to create something that would become almost as influential: the Scholastic Assessment Test. Although it took a decade or so to sell colleges and universities on the SAT, by 1960 it was fast becoming what Chauncey called “the human equivalent of the railroad standard gauge.” Just as our uniform railway system delivered goods to their destinations, so the SAT funneled young people to the appropriate institutions of higher education.

From today’s perspective, it seems slightly perverse that a multiple-choice test should determine the future of 17-year-olds. But in postwar America, when the SAT was in its ascendancy, everyone from army generals to university presidents wanted an efficient system of identifying bright kids from ordinary backgrounds who, with the proper education, could perform noble tasks like designing rocket ships or freeway systems. James Conant, president of Harvard at the time, believed this kind of testing could promote the formation of a “natural aristocracy.” Bright students from places like Iowa would have the same education and career opportunities as those from Eastern boarding schools.

Even before the rise of the SAT, a few prescient but largely ignored critics pointed out the dangers inherent in such thinking. Talking about a new aristocracy, even a so-called natural one, was undemocratic; basing it on test scores was insane. Carl Brigham, creator of the SAT, understood its potential dark side and eventually turned against the entire testing apparatus. “If the unhappy day comes when teachers point their students toward these newer examinations,” he wrote, “we may look for the inevitable distortion in terms of tests. Mathematics will continue to be completely departmentalized and broken into disintegrated bits.” Languages, he added, “will be taught for linguistic skills only, without reference to literary values.”

Brigham’s predicted “unhappy day” has arrived. Our children now spend a large chunk of their young lives preparing for or taking tests, as if school were a big training ground for the SAT. Facts and skills are everything, while intangibles like leadership and creativity—qualities the SAT cannot measure—barely get lip service. Indeed, Lemann tells us that Ralph Nader and other early critics correctly foresaw that SAT-driven schools would ultimately turn out bright, test-taking careerist types—today’s yuppies.

Finally, Lemann demonstrates how the SAT and other tests like it have subtly but surely undermined attempts over the years to improve the education system. With so much riding on the SAT, schools have had every incentive to focus their best efforts on the college-bound—those with the potential to score well—to the detriment of others. Certainly no group has been hurt more than impoverished African American kids stuck in our worst urban districts. They get affirmative action with “weighted” SAT scores instead of the better schools they really need.

A cautious, reflective writer, Lemann only suggests what it seems he wants to say: that it’s time to do away with this confounding sorting mechanism and get on with the work of educating all our children.

The Students Are Watching: Schools and the Moral Contract,by Theodore Sizer and Nancy Faust Sizer. (Beacon Press, $21.)
Over a long and distinguished career as a school reformer, Ted Sizer has consistently argued that the best schools are close-knit communities where students and teachers know each other well. In The Students Are Watching, the founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools and his wife Nancy, a teacher, expand on this view, asserting that what kids learn about morality in school has little to do with formal character education, mission statements, or discipline codes. Instead, the Sizers rightly see morality as something that unfolds in a school’s everyday interactions.

How do the adults treat each other? How deeply do they grapple with the ideas they teach? Do they demand as much of themselves as they do of their students? Whether teachers realize it or not, students are always watching them, trying to gauge their reliability, their integrity, and their commitment to their subjects and their charges.

As the Sizers describe it, then, teaching is both a hopeful and frightening profession. Though teachers have the chance to be a force for good in kids’ lives, there is, on the other hand, no place for them to hide. Who they are and how they behave is as much a part of their lessons as the subjects they teach.

Holler If You Hear Me: The Education of a Teacher and His Students,by Gregory Michie. (Teachers College Press, $19.95.)
From the moment Michie begins teaching in Chicago in the early 1990s, he tries to impress upon his mostly Mexican American middle school students the importance “of speaking up intelligently about matters that concern them.” Building his lessons around the kids and their lives, Michie jettisons much of the back-to-basics coursework the central office wants him to cover. Instead he has students debate school policies, make audiotapes of relevant novels like Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, and “deconstruct” the dubious social values of such pop-culture TV programs as Rikki Lake, Cops, and the Jerry Springer Show.

Michie writes as candidly as he does vividly, acknowledging occasional doubts about his teaching syle. Though he sees his students benefit from his approach—gaining, for example, an awareness of the sexual and racial stereotypes promulgated on television—he worries that he may be imposing an unwelcome agenda. At one point, his students tell him they’re tired of hearing about sexism all the time.

Michie also fears that he’s not doing enough to improve his students’ basic reading and writing skills. “I can’t honestly say that they leave [my class] as better comunicators,” he writes. “Some do. Some don’t.”

Still, the book is far from pessimistic. Michie is a passionate believer in the power of education. And his open and ongoing struggles to become a better teacher in the face of overwhelming obstacles are inspiring—both to his students and the reader. By the end, we actually believe him when he writes, “We can make a difference. We can change the world.”

—David Ruenzel