Testing `big thought' to increase diversity


SAT: Henry Chauncey, who led the development of the first college admissions test, defends the program against `meritocracy' critic.

March 19, 2000|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN STAFF

SHELBOURNE, Vt. -- At 95, when a trip to the supermarket can seem like an expedition, Henry Chauncey has decided to take the trip of all trips -- around the world. But then Chauncey always "dreamed great big thoughts," an old friend says.

Like using a multiple-choice test to determine an individual's suitability for a job, a career -- or a college education. It was Chauncey who directed the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service as it developed the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT, into a passport to America's colleges.

The institution administers 11 million tests (not only the SAT) in 180 countries. But Chauncey's pioneering work at ETS to establish national criteria for college admissions has had serious social effects, according to Nicholas Lemann's book "The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy."

Lemann argues that the experiment to democratize higher education, paradoxically, forged an American meritocracy and created a "destructive and anti-democratic culture of frenzy surrounding [school] admissions."

"Our meritocracy was devised so as to nationalize education for the few of great gifts," Lemann writes, "identifying the best test scorers and whisking them away to good colleges and universities all over the country, while leaving education local for everyone else. Localism works reasonably well for most people, but it works very badly for students in those worst schools, most of which are in poor, all-minority neighborhoods."

Chauncey, ruddy of complexion and broad of physique, believes the SAT has stood the test of time, even if it has been misinterpreted, misused and maligned.

"What is the SAT?" he asks. "There are those who think of it as a measure of inherited ability. That's wrong. It's a measure of developed ability, one component of which is native ability. But it also is affected by the extent to which parents talk to their children when they're young, have good conversations at luncheon time.

"The tests, the programs when they began, were to select people to go to college to get a good education," he says.

"But nowadays we're trying to get practically everybody to go to college because our society's needs require a much larger force of people to have a good college education. Nick Lemann has got this meritocratic bug."

When Chauncey, the Harvard-educated son of an Ohio minister, went to college, the SAT didn't exist. He has never taken it. "I wasn't going to take a chance," he quips.

But in college he took a course or two on testing. At the time, a Princeton psychology professor named Carl Brigham was developing something he called the Scholastic Aptitude Test as an admissions exam for college-bound students.

It made its debut June 23, 1926, in a test run with 8,000 high school students.

Six years later, while an assistant dean at Harvard, Chauncey used the test to select scholarship students from a pool of applicants from beyond the ranks of Northeastern prep schools.

He persuaded other Ivy League schools to use the SAT at a time when most state universities required no admissions test. Chauncey's boss, Harvard President James Bryant Conant, envisioned diversifying the student body at a select group of colleges that would train the next generation of leaders.

Chauncey got his chance to do large-scale testing when the Army and Navy chose the College Board to select draftees eligible for a college deferment. The agency used a SAT-like test for the job, and on April 2, 1943, it administered the exam to 325,000 men.

In 1945, Chauncey left Harvard to join the College Board. When it merged with the American Council on Education three years later, he was tapped as the head of the new Educational Testing Service.

ETS fought its competitors state by state until it dominated the educational testing market.

The agency began in a converted garage in downtown Princeton. As it grew, it found office space wherever it could -- in firehouses, warehouses, storefronts. Chauncey eventually set his sights on a wooded tract outside Princeton. Today, ETS' campus-like setting houses 10 buildings and 2,100 employees.

"Henry has always dreamed great big thoughts," says Alden Dunham, a close friend and a former dean of admissions at Princeton. "He is an extremely modest guy with big ideas. Henry was not a psychometrician. He didn't know the ins and outs of testing. He was willing to hire people and work with people who were.

"That lack of ego enabled Henry to be a great leader. He liked to see the results."

Research was an important aspect of ETS' work and one Chauncey believes Lemann's book failed to fully recognize.

"I was trying to find tests that would get at other qualities. I was always interested in guidance and helping students figure out what they wanted to do or what they wanted to study," says Chauncey, who retired from ETS in 1970. "I wanted to have people know more about themselves."

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