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The History of the Standardized Test.

Journalist and staff writer for The New Yorker Nicholas Lemann is the author of the new book "The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy" (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux). It's a social history of how reformers in the mid 1940s set upon universal testing criteria (the Educational Testing Service, purveyors of the SAT) as a way of creating a new democratic elite, drawn from every section and every background of America. And it's about how that 50 year old system has failed.


Other segments from the episode on September 28, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 28, 1999: Interview with Nicholas Lemann; Commentary on the language used to discuss the teaching of evolution.


Date: SEPTEMBER 28, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 092801np.217
Head: The Failure of "The Big Test"
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: From WHYY in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with FRESH AIR.

High school students around the country will take the SATs next week, and the scores will help determine what colleges the students get into. On today's FRESH AIR, we look at the history of this standardized test and compare the original mission of the test with its uses today. We talk with Nicholas Lemann, author of the new book "The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy."

Also, the Kansas Board of Education recently decided to leave evolution out of its required curriculum. Linguist Geoff Nunberg examines how the language used in the debate about teaching evolution has changed over the century.

That's all coming up on FRESH AIR.

First the news.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The SATs, the Scholastic Aptitude Tests, will be administered to high school students next week, and the scores will play a big part in determining which students get into which colleges.

My guest, Nicholas Lemann, is the author of a new book examining the history of this standardized test, its original mission and how that compares with how the tests are used today. Lemann's book is called "The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy." Lemann is a staff writer at "The New Yorker" and author of the book "The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America."

I asked why he wanted to write a book about the SATs and their role in creating an American meritocracy.

NICHOLAS LEMANN, AUTHOR: Two million people take the SAT every year. Everybody remembers it. Everybody in middle-class America remembers it as a signal moment in their lives, taking this test. It's sort of the point where the whole population is scanned and sorted and then routed onto a slot in the higher education system that then tracks them into whatever they're going to do in life. So it just -- you know, you go for the sort of fraction point, the place where everything sort of comes together and then blows apart again. And that seemed to be the place.

GROSS: So you went back to the early history of the Educational Testing Service, which creates the SATs, to figure out what were they trying to test for. What was the original idea. So let's go back to the early history. Let's start with James Bryant Conant. He had been the president of Harvard. What is his role in the founding of ETS, and then we'll get to what his vision was.

LEMANN: OK. Conant was an almost unimaginably influential figure in mid-20th century America. He was the president of Harvard. He was, you know, this supremely confident spokesman for the -- for all of education in America. He was arguably the father of the atomic bomb and also arguably the father of the Marshall Plan for reconstruction of Europe. So his name is not a household name today, but he was a big deal.

When he took over as president of Harvard, he felt that Harvard and other elite universities like it had been kind of captured by an American aristocracy, people who were the children and grandchildren of the robber barons of the Gilded Age, and they had turned these great American universities into a kind of playpen for themselves. So the universities were local. They were unselective. They were dominated by kids from boarding schools who kind of partied their way through school and then got a series of plummy jobs running things as almost a matter of birthright.

Conant despised that system, that atmosphere, and wanted to replace it with something else. He wanted to kick those people out and fill the universities with scholarship students taken from all backgrounds and all parts of the country, chosen on their intelligence and academic achievement.

GROSS: And where did the vision of a standardized test fit in?

LEMANN: Well, the question was how do you find people like that? I mean, it's a little bit like the story of Cinderella. You know, you need to send the guys out from the palace with the glass slipper, but what's the glass slipper? In other words, how do you tell if you're going to, to us a real example, Champlain, Illinois, to the local high school -- how do you tell whether the kid who's getting A's there is better than the kid from Andover, Exeter, Groton, these old boarding schools in the northeast? It's actually quite hard to tell back when this all started in the early 1930s.

So the appeal of a standardized test like the SAT -- which is essentially an adopted IQ test, adopted to be harder and more aimed for high school students -- is no matter what school you went to, it will look at you supposedly on an equal basis. And it provides a way to find the smart, talented kid out there in the real America, in a public high school, and give him the place at a place like Harvard that had previously been reserved for a preppy.

GROSS: So James Bryant Conant's vision was to use standardized testing to create a more democratic version of higher education. Let's get to Henry Chauncy (ph), who was an assistant dean at Harvard under James Conant and was a co-founder of the Educational Testing Service. What was his vision? How would you compare his vision to Conant's?

LEMANN: Conant was a social engineer. He thought constantly about what America should look like as a society and how you can kind of monkey around with the system to remake America. Henry Chauncy does not think about stuff like that. That is of small interest to him. And I speak of him, by the way, in the present tense because he's still alive. He's a very hale and hearty 94-year-old. Turns 95 in February.

Chauncy is intrigued and always was with testing itself. He thought testing, mental testing, multiple-choice mental testing, represented one of the great breakthroughs of the whole history of science and would essentially change human society radically, that we had found a magic instrument that would solve problems that had bedeviled people for millennia.

In other words, what goes on inside your mind? All this stuff goes on. We can't see it. It's irrational. It's murky. It leads to all sorts of strange behavior and human woe. But in his view, once testing had been invented, it was like, as Ross Perot would say, popping open the hood. You could look in the mind and understand it rationally and find out what made people work and then restructure the world that way.

So in some way that he wasn't quite sure of the specifics of, you could fix the world just by testing a tremendous amount.

GROSS: Was he in on the design of the first SATs?

LEMANN: No, he wasn't. He picked the SAT as a device for college admissions among a series of other tests that were kind of floating around. But the main thing was he -- after ETS began in the late '40s, he went on a quest for years to find -- he thought the SAT was just the beginning. And he thought, "Well, I've found the SAT. Now I'm going to find a whole lot of other tests for other qualities, and we'll put them all together, and then we'll be able to test everybody in the country for everything."

So he went around -- he never really found another test like the SAT that he could, you know, put into place as a national test. But his idea was -- he wanted to start something he called the "census of abilities." The idea was the government would take all children in America and test them on all qualities twice, once at the start of high school, once at the end of high school, and then advise them on what to do with their lives.

So he tried to find a test of persistence, a test of sense of humor, a test of marital compatibility, a test of personality, a test of motivation. There's a really interesting list of the tests that didn't happen, in addition to the test that did happen, the SAT.

GROSS: So this guy just, like, defines the meaning of empiricism, that absolutely everything can be measured.

LEMANN: Absolutely. He loved tests. He took every test. He had his family take every test. And he just -- he just believed that problems that had never been solved before could be solved through testing.

By the way, he's descended from a long line of ministers, starting with Puritans who came here in the 1600s. His father was a minister. And he really thought of testing as, as he put it, the moral equivalent of religion. In other words, before, throughout human history, you had all of this stuff that people didn't know how to deal with, and religion was a kind of rough, blunt instrument for figuring out somehow some way of managing it.

But now you could essentially replace religion's role in society with testing. Testing would do rationally what religion had done mystically. And of course, once you think that, it allows you to build your organization, Educational Testing Service, with religious fervor, and Chauncy definitely did that.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Nicholas Lemann, and his new book is called "The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy."

Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk a little bit more about your research.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Nicholas Lemann, and we're talking about his new book, "The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy."

You've told us a little bit about the founders of the Educational Testing Service, which creates the SATs. When was the first SAT?

LEMANN: Here are the signal dates. The first SAT was given in 1926, experimentally. It was given in kind of fits and starts through the 1930s. The next really -- well, in 1933, Harvard adopted the SAT as a test for its scholarship applicants. In 1938 -- next important date -- Henry Chauncy persuaded all of the Ivy League schools to uniformly use the SAT as a test, but only for scholarship applicants. So at that point, you're up to 10,000 takers a year, something like that.

The big thing after that was when the Second World War started, all of the other existing admissions tests for these Ivy League schools were dropped. They were essay tests that had to be graded by hand. The SAT can be graded by a machine. So as soon as the Second World War started, the SAT became the admissions test for all the Ivy League schools.

Next really important thing that happened is a kind of red-letter date in America history that hasn't been noted before. On April the 2nd, 1943, under contract to the Army and the Navy, Chauncy gave the SAT to 350,000 people all in one day -- you know, people all over the country. We take this for granted now, but it was really complicated and thought to be impossible to give a standardized test with consequences under secure conditions to hundreds of thousands of people in hundreds of locations and then gather up all the answers and score them and get the scores out quickly. That's quite a project, and this is what Henry Chauncy spent the war figuring out how to do.

Once you did that, then the -- then you could see the possibility on the horizon that you could use this test and other tests like it to sort the entire population of the country. So you know, you went from just scholarship applicants to Ivy League schools to what we have now, which is basically everybody who goes to high school in the whole country sits down on a given day and is, you know, measured against the same ruler at the same moment and then sent somewhere partly on that basis.

GROSS: You said that when Chauncy was looking for the right test to become the big standardized test for measuring college applicants, he chose the SAT. What was it about the SAT that he thought was -- made it the appropriate test? I mean, all of us who've taken the SATs remember all those -- like, in the English part, all the antonyms and homonyms and the word that doesn't belong and the vocabulary words that -- you know, words that no one ever really used. There's a lot of really arcane things that one was expected to know in the English part.

So what did he think was appropriate about the SAT?

LEMANN: Here were the instructions that Conant gave to Chauncy that led Chauncy to pick the SAT. Now, remember, we're back in the 1930s. American education is still quite decentralized, but at the time it was radically decentralized. There were 15,000 school districts all over the country. Probably each one has one high school. Some have more than one high school. So you have, you know, 15,000, 20,000 high schools.

There's no assurance of the quality of the schools. There's no assurance of what the kids are being taught in the schools. So the first thing is, find a test that doesn't depend on the quality of the high school. And that's why you have to come up with these strange things like reading comprehension passages and antonyms and analogies, because they don't grow specifically out of a high school curriculum.

The other thing is Conant was -- although he didn't say this so much in his published writings, he was a believer in the idea of native intelligence. He wanted a test that was as close as possible to an IQ test, a test of what he considered to be an inborn mental capacity. So he really picked the SAT because he thought it was as close as he could get to a pure IQ test for high school students.

GROSS: Little did he know that so much of many schools high school curriculums would be based in part around learning how to take the SATs. I mean, I remember in my math and English classes, we spent a lot of time preparing for the SATs.

LEMANN: Not only that -- I mean, that's only the beginning. There's the whole kind of reverse engineering of the school system to produce high SAT scores. And then there's the whole test prep industry kind of off the site of the school system, doing the same thing. I mean, there's so many ironies to how the system has turned out compared to what Conant thought it would be. But certainly, that's one of them.

What he failed to see, in a sense -- American society at mid-century was a much more top-down society than it is today. And these people totally missed the idea that if you take one thing, no matter what it is, and say whether you become successful in life, where you end up in life will depend substantially on just this one little thing, that you'll then generate a lot of frenetic activity around people trying to manipulate the outcome. I mean, that just seems axiomatic, but it truly didn't occur to the people who set up this testing system.

Remember, people weren't even told their SAT scores till 1957. So the idea was there would be no kind of consumer empowerment aspect to the testing system, where people would try to affect their scores. Also, all these people truly believed they were measuring an innate mental capacity, or at least a developed mental capacity. So they thought -- and they still think this, really -- you can't prepare for these tests. So there's a real mismatch between what the test makers think is possible in terms of preparing for the tests and what the millions of people who take the tests and their parents and their teachers think is possible.

GROSS: You know, one of the founders of the ETS, James Bryant Conant, thought that the SATs could help create a more representative intellectual elite. When you look at the results of the SATs over the years, do you think that the results have matched his vision?

LEMANN: Conant's vision has been extremely successful in some ways and extremely unsuccessful in other ways, and it's an interesting story. Here's how it's been successful. I think he really did succeed in reengineering the American elite. The people that he didn't like who had a kind of purchase on a certain part of American real estate right at the top, he did succeed in dislodging those people. And that's remarkable. I mean, it's kind of a bloodless revolution, right?

Usually, when you try to displace an elite, they get their guns out and so on. But they were replaced and replaced peaceably. And the people who got those slots tend to be outstanding academic performers, which is -- which is what Conant wanted to have in the elite. In other words, his vision of merit was academic merit. So that all happened.

The larger part of the story is, you know, this was just one -- Conant, as I said, was a very, very ambitious man who thought big. And all of what I've just described was only a little part of what he was trying to do. That was part 1, and part 2 was this kind of radical remaking of American society.

Conant wrote a famous article in 1943 in "The Atlantic Monthly" called "Wanted: American Radicals." That was what he thought these people he was selecting would be. In other words, you would select these people who got high SAT scores. You would give them scholarships to great universities. What they would then do is become radical Democrats and create a kind of new lefty-liberal regime in America that would guarantee equality, democracy and classlessness to all Americans.

That's the -- and also, these people in the new elite were supposed to be completely selfless public servants who by and large worked for government, or at least for non-profit organizations. That's the part of the vision that hasn't come true at all. In other words, this system has not turned America into a classless society, as Conant assured people it would. And the new elite has not, by and large, devoted itself to public service, but instead tends to work in the private sector. So I think if he saw the whole thing in operation, he would be fairly distressed.

Another thing that would be disturbing to him would be the sight of a very divisive racial politics around testing and admissions. It never occurred to him that that would happen. He thought this regime would bring America together, not that there would be lawsuits and state initiatives all over America on the question of, you know, who gets to get into the elite universities and how strictly do you have to adhere to SAT scores. That would break his heart, I think.

GROSS: Well, what are some of the grounds that the SATs have been challenged by certain African-American and Latino groups who think that the questions are biased, that many aspects of the test are biased?

LEMANN: Here's the situation. If -- testing has been around, mental testing has been around -- it's a 20th century institution. The first IQ test was 1905. As long as there have been these mental tests, they have tended to kind of reproduce photographically the way society works or the way society looks. And indeed, you know, even before there were tests, this was predicted by the people who invented the idea of intelligence.

So by and large, on average, rich people get higher scores than poor people. By and large, on average, white people get higher scores than black people, et cetera. This has been true from the very beginning of standardized testing.

So if you create a kind of small set of goodies, which are slots in competitive higher education, and if you create an open competition for those goodies -- if you say "Here's something everybody should want, but only a few people can get," and if you further say, "We're going to distribute these slots according to scores on standardized tests," then minorities, poor people and so on are going to be under-represented. They're going to get less than their at least population share of the goodies. And that generates political conflict.

Then you get into an argument about do you distribute these slots on the basis of test scores, completely blindly, or do you try to distribute them on a more political basis or take other factors into account, try to select this SAT elite in a way that, you know, reflects the composition of the country more.

GROSS: Nicholas Lemann is the author of "The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy." He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Nicholas Lemann. His new book is a history of the SAT, the Scholastic Aptitude Test, and its role today in determining where students end up in life. His book is called "The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy."

Just a few weeks ago there was an article in "The Wall Street Journal" about a new educational testing service program called Strivers, which would take into account any educational disadvantages in a student's background and kind of compensate in the final test score. Would you describe how that program was designed to work?

NICHOLAS LEMANN, "THE BIG TEST: THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN MERITOCRACY": Yes. The Strivers program, was supposed to -- and I put it in the past tense, because I don't think there's ever going to be a Striver's program -- it was supposed to work in the following way. ETS knows the socioeconomic background of every taker of the SAT, because of forms that the kids have to fill out.

So they would take your socioeconomic background, and from that predict what the -- what your SAT score was likely to be. Then they would give the kids the actual SAT. The kids whose SAT scores were much higher than what you would predict from their socioeconomic background would be called Strivers, and they would be given a kind of upward-adjusted SAT score. So you'd say, Well, you know, you would think this kid would get an 800 combined score. In fact, the kid got a 1,000 combined score. So we're going to call it a 1,200 combined score.

That was the idea of Strivers. But as soon as "The Wall Street Journal" did a story saying this was being developed and was about to roll out, the reaction was so intense and so negative that ETS pulled away from it immediately, and I don't think it'll ever happen.

GROSS: Who -- negative on the part of who?

LEMANN: Well, negative on the part of people who want the SATs to be a completely neutral measure. In other words, the idea that ETS was going to manipulate the score to reflect socioeconomic reality, that really hit a nerve.

And they did two kinds of Strivers. They did one where they manipulated the scores by race, and one where they manipulated by the scores by class. In both cases, I think, this would have been extremely unpopular with the kind of upper middle class suburban core constituency of standardized testing, because they would say, Hey, wait a minute, you mean, my -- some kid from the inner city is going to zoom past my kid, even though my kid got higher scores than them? No way.

That's the button it pushes. Now, let me say, the Strivers program already exists informally, and it has for decades. I mean, every selective college does this anyway, they give a little leg up to somebody who outperforms their background. But they don't do it in a formal, numerical way.

There's a larger point here about standardized tests in general, which is, if you take this explosive and highly loaded subject of opportunity in America, and if you attach numbers to it and formal structures, you give people something to fight about. So in a sense, the existence of the system creates conflict. If you have an informal, loosely structured system, there's a lot less conflict.

When all the colleges were doing informal striver's programs, there was much less argument about it. If you do a formal striver's program, everything goes kablooey, and that's why there won't be a Strivers program.

GROSS: In the meantime, I think the Educational Testing Service has been trying to weed out questions that seem to have an inherent social or racial or class bias to them. Can you give an example of a question that was weeded out because of an inherent bias?

LEMANN: There are two separate little departments at ETS that address this question, and they have these kind of incomprehensible techie names. One is called the Department for Differential Item Functioning, and one is called the Department for Item Sensitivity.

Item sensitivity means if there's a question that would seem to offend the sensibilities of minority groups or would seem on face -- on first glance to be biased. The examples of these are, you know, reading comprehension passages that have words in them like "yacht" or "antique." And that was sort of the first wave of protest against the tests being biased.

But the second kind -- it turns out that a lot of those questions don't actually produce a different level of right answer between blacks and whites. Then there's another set of questions where, for example, blacks will get lower scores than whites even though you wouldn't think so from looking at the question. For example, almost any question dealing with doctors, health, and the medical system, whites will score much higher than blacks. The gap is much higher than the ordinary black-white gap.

And nobody knows quite what that is. So ETS has tried to weed out those questions.

In the '80s, ETS brought in a kind of nontechnical guy as its president named Greg Anrig (ph). And he ordered that all the questions that showed the highest black-white differential just be thrown out on that basis. The testing technical community was outraged over this and protested, and Anrig rescinded his decision.

Here's the larger point. People don't quite understand what these tests are made to do. The SAT is precision engineered to try to predict a high school senior's freshman year college grade point average. Every question, or as they're called in the trade, item, every item on the test is closely evaluated to see how predictive it is of freshman year grades.

So it's really meant to do something quite narrow, and it predicts about 15 percent of the variance in freshman year grades.

Now, any time you set up a test that has as its aim predicting the grade point averages of high school seniors six months into the future, it's going to have this racial bias inherent in the project it has taken on. You can't get rid of the bias until you have a country where black high school seniors and Latino high school seniors and white high school seniors are all going to the same kinds of schools and getting the same quality education.

As long as you don't have that, you're always going to have the test score gap. It's because the test is designed to measure how well educated you are when you're a senior in high school that you have the gap, not because there are words like "yacht" and "antique" on the questions.

GROSS: But I thought that the test was supposed to measure inherent intelligence and not factors pertaining to the quality of education you got in your high school.

LEMANN: Yes, well, that raises the really interesting question, which is, what is inherent intelligence? I mean, the SAT originally was designed to be a test of inherent intelligence, or as ETS would put it, developed ability. Conant (ph) clearly wanted it to be an intelligence test. The man who wrote the test initially, Carl Brigham (ph), wanted it to be an intelligence test.

But, you know, all intelligence tests are heavily dependent on vocabulary items. I mean, that's the kind of bread and butter of intelligence testing, and it always has been. You know, from a -- if you have a large vocabulary that you can -- you're adept with, you will have a high IQ.

So then you get to this more profound question. Does having a large vocabulary, is that a sign that there is some physical, innate, high capacity in your brain, or is it a sign that, you know, you come from a highly verbal family, that you read a lot, that you've had a good education?

It's very hard to devise any IQ test that cannot be prepped for. And, you know, one of the many ironies of this system is that the SAT is considered in admissions to be a measure of the student's ability irrespective of high school quality, but every time ETS or the College Board publishes average SAT scores, they're taken to be a measure of the quality of American education.

I mean, logically, you can't have it both ways. But the test is so fetishized and totemized and has such psychological importance now in America that we kind of use it to stand for everything at once.

GROSS: My guest is Nicholas Lemann, author of the new book "The Big Test." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Nicholas Lemann, author of a book about the SATs called "The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy."

What kind of discussion are you hoping to generate through your research into the history of standardized college admission tests?

LEMANN: Well, here's where I think the state of play is right now. There is this word, "meritocracy." We think meritocracy is good, meritocracy means the society that -- in which the deserving get the rewards. And it's the opposite of aristocracy, a society which operates by inheritance or some other unfair means.

So the only way, we think, to have a meritocracy is to have this educational selection and sorting system. I would like the book to kind of walk through all the assumptions that are embedded in what I just said, which I think is the conventional wisdom, show where they came from, who I -- who invented them, what the argument is around them, and kind of get a discussion started.

I mean, just to tick a few off, you could have a meritocracy that isn't an educational meritocracy. That, I think, would be a better system. In other words, you would have an education system that is -- you know, if you like this idea of a race for opportunity, the education system would exist to equip as many people as possible for that race. And then they would go on and have their meritocracy after they graduated from school.

This system was designed to get people really on a track by the time they graduate from college. That seems to me when the meritocratic race should begin, not when it should be over.

The word "meritocracy," people don't realize this, was invented by a man named Michael Young not that long ago, 40 years ago, in order for him to hold it up as a bad thing, not a good thing. It's been turned around from his original meaning.

What he said was, if you have a society that gives standardized tests and, you know, hands out the top positions to people who score well on them, inevitably the society will take on an aristocratic look, because these people's kids will also do well, and their kids will also do well. And then you'll have a society with an entrenched ruling class that can say, Well, we got it on our own merits, we got it fairly. And how good does that society look?

I like the idea of a society -- this is the, you know, real premise of American society -- where everyone is as an individual seeking opportunity, trying to make him- or herself into something that they want to be. I don't necessarily think the only way to achieve that is by giving people SATs when they're 17 and telling them where to go to college.

GROSS: There is a certain logic that the top positions in top schools should go to the people who have most seriously pursued academic studies or done the best in academic studies. Do you feel like you're challenging that issue as well, or wanting to hold that up to a new national debate?

LEMANN: No, I don't. Here's what I would like to -- the distinction I would like to make. This system, the American meritocracy, was set up by people who really believed, you know, academic merit is merit, and we should decide who gets to do just about everything on the -- in our society on the basis of what kind of grades they get in school as a teenager.

So it's not just, you know, the ability to study things in school that's being parceled out according to academic criterion. That's perfectly logical. It's also the ability to enter various businesses, practice various professions. I would question whether you need to use as tight an academic screen to make people -- to select people for doing things that are essentially nonacademic.

And you can do a lot of these things by auditioning and apprenticing systems rather than academic credentialing systems, sort of the way journalism works, which I like.

GROSS: Now, you went to Harvard yourself, although I have to say, that's not mentioned on the bio on your book jacket. Did you intentionally leave that off?

LEMANN: Yes, I took it out. In fact, the publisher put it in, and I took it out. And the reason that I took it out is, you know, my idea of how society should work is that people should stand on what they've actually done rather than on their educational credentials. And for that reason, I wanted to be identified -- I'm -- you know, I've been a journalist for a long time, I'm proud of what I've done, and I would like to be judged on my production and work as a journalist. And I don't want to sort of introduce the notion of an educational credential and say, You should be impressed by me because of where I went to school. I want you to be impressed by me or not on the basis of what I've actually done.

GROSS: I think taking the SATs is -- makes such a big impression on people, and it is for some students a very kind of traumatic event. And a lot of people just kind of forever remember their scores. Do you remember what you got? Do you still remember your number?

LEMANN: Yes, I do. I'm afraid I do. I am part of the -- I would say, large majority of people who can never forget their SAT scores.

GROSS: Can you tell me what it was?

LEMANN: No. I've thought about this a lot...

GROSS: (laughs)

LEMANN: ... as you can imagine, as I go out on promotion of the book, and I have made a policy decision not to say what my score is. And I would just defend it on grounds of privacy and also on grounds of what I just said, which is...

GROSS: You don't want to be judged by it.

LEMANN: Yes, I don't think people -- I think in general people shouldn't be judged by their SAT scores. Instead they should be judged by their genuine achievements. And I would like to be judged that way myself.

GROSS: What do you most remember about the day you took the SATs?

LEMANN: I don't remember anything about the day I took the SATs. I do remember fairly vividly, you know, opening the envelope they send you, where they tell you your score. That's the scene that sticks in my mind.

GROSS: Why is that so vivid to you?

LEMANN: Because you feel that you're getting this number that, A, in some ways is connected -- is a measure of your innate worth as a human being, and B, is going -- this one moment, this one number is going to determine the course of your life. So when you're 16 years old -- I mean, all that is somewhat exaggerated, but you know it's out there in the culture, and people think that, and they're all obsessed about it. When they get to college, they all sort of trade SAT score info in this kind of secretive but obsessed way.

So when you tell a 16-year-old, Here's an envelope, and inside this envelope is your innate worth and your fate in life, you know, 16-year-old's going to remember that.

GROSS: Well, Nicholas Lemann, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Nicholas Lemann is the author of "The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy." He's a staff writer at the "The New Yorker."

I mentioned yesterday that we have an interview with Aretha Franklin coming up next week. We have another great soul singer coming up soon, Bobby Womack (ph). Let's hear the title song he wrote for the 1972 film "Across 110th Street," a song which Quentin Tarantino used a couple of years ago in his film, "Jackie Brown."


GROSS: That's Bobby Womack, who will be our guest soon on FRESH AIR.

Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunburg examines the language used in the debate over the teaching of evolution in the schools.

This is FRESH AIR.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Nichollas Lemann
High: Journalist Nicholas Lemann, author of "The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy," discusses how reformers in the mid-1940s set upon universal testing criteria as a way of creating a new democratic elite, drawn from every section and every background of America, and how that 50-year-old system has failed.
Spec: Education; Science; "The Big Test"

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The Failure of "The Big Test"

Date: SEPTEMBER 28, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 092802NP.217
Head: The Language of the Creationism Controversy
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:50

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

GROSS: The Kansas Board of Education was in the news not long ago when it decided to leave evolution out of its required curriculum. The decision revived the controversy that's been a part of American life since the 1920s. But our linguist, Geoff Nunburg, has noticed that the language of the controversy has changed over the course of the century.

GEOFF NUNBURG, LINGUIST: Listening to the debates over the teaching of evolution in Kansas recently, I kept thinking how much less confusing it was in the old days, when the Fundamentalists and the moderns spoke different languages.

It's a moment that's preserved for us in the play "Inherit the Wind" and the three movies that have been made from it. The play was based on the Scopes trial of 1925, when Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan faced off in a test of the Tennessee state law that forbade the teaching of evolution.

The climactic moment comes when the character based on Darrow cross-examines the character based on Bryan in his capacity as an expert on the Bible. At one point he asks about the geological evidence for the age of the earth, and the Bryan character answers dismissively, "I am more interested in the Rock of Ages than I am in the ages of rocks."

End of discussion.

I expect that Darrow would have gotten a very different answer from the modern opponents of evolution, who call themselves creation scientists. They've abandoned a lot of the strict literalism of their forbears. They grant that the Earth is billions of years old, they reject the idea of a universal flood, and they allow that evolution can lead to changes within a species.

But they insist that only God can produce new species and deny that people can trace their family trees back to anything with a tail.

And unlike the old-fashioned Fundamentalists, they're quite comfortable talking about scientific issues like gaps in the fossil record or the theory of punctuated equilibrium.

This new approach has enabled Creationists to reframe the terms of the debate about what should go on in the school room. Now they make their case with the familiar logic of pluralism. Evolution and Creationism are simply competing scientific theories, they say, which deserve unbiased presentation.

That word "theory" plays a crucial role in these discussions. One Kansas legislator justified the recent board of education decision by pointing to the large number of people in Kansas who are disturbed by presenting evolution as more than a theory. The Alabama Department of Education requires that all biology textbooks carry a disclaimer that states that evolution is "a theory, not a fact." And Tennessee and Georgia have considered similar measures.

Using "theory" here amounts to a kind of inspired pun. In the scientific sense, of course, evolution is a theory, that is, a testable framework for explaining a range of observable facts. But to call something a scientific theory doesn't mean it's conjectural or speculative. After all, gravitation is a theory too, but nobody would say it's only a theory.

It's just that scientists don't like to call anything a fact if it can't be directly observed.

But in ordinary speech, we tend to use "theory" in a looser way to mean just a speculation or an unproven hypothesis, the sense we have when we say that something is just a theory. That's how the term's supposed to be understood in those textbook disclaimers. It's an adroit maneuver which apes the language of scientific discourse but gives it another interpretation -- Well, you people yourselves say it's only a theory.

And from there, it's an easy step to portraying evolution and creation science as scientific theories that should compete on level ground.

In its way, the new language of Creationism is a backhand tribute to the hold that science has acquired on the public mind since the time of the Scopes trial. But things were clearer back in William Jennings Bryan's day, when the two sides weren't trying to use the same language.

You wonder what Bryan would have made of the turn that Creationism has taken. I don't suppose he would have minded the misreadings of science in the attacks on evolution. But he might have been troubled at seeing Creationism defended in scientific language, as if revelation needed to be tricked out in a lab coat to make it presentable.

The one thing we can be sure of is that William Jennings Bryan would never have stopped to describing Creationism as a theory.

GROSS: Geoff Nunburg is a linguist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today was Audrey Bentham (ph). Dorothy Farabee (ph) is our administrative assistant. Roberta Shorrock directs the show.

I'm Terry Gross.

We'll close with music from a new CD by guitarist and singer John Pizzarelli (ph). You may remember he was our guest performer on our tribute to composer Harry Warren. Pizzarelli's new CD is a tribute to Nat Cole called "P.S., Mr. Cole."


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Geoff Nunburg
High: Linguist Geoff Nunburg examines how the language of the Creationism versus evolution controversy has changed over the past century.
Spec: Science; Religion; Education

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The Language of the Creationism Controversy
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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