Helping people to understand themselves. To think sensibly about what they
might want to do. And then to assess how well they've done it. There are a
lot of different things that testing gets used for...|
It seemed to me that we knew more about the horses in the country than we
knew about the people of the country. And that it would be useful to know more
about all the different people.
When ETS was formed, one of the main purposes was to do a lot of research.
And ETS has had the largest educational research activity of any institution in
the world, and people don't know about that. They know about the SAT, but they
don't know about that. And it also was to try and develop new tests. That's
been a tougher nut to crack, but there have been some.
What was the class like in the '20s and '30s at Harvard, compared to
I'm amazed, looking through the report of my own class--a lot of people I
didn't know--and how well many of them have done. But it was not hard to get
into Harvard in those days. And when Conant became president, we were right in
the middle of the Depression, and we couldn't fill the class with what we
called paying guests, people who would pay their own way.
So nowadays, the number of people who apply, who qualify, there are more
people who are first in their class, valedictorians in their class... And of
course, they don't accept them on that basis alone.
By the time you had established ETS, the selective service test was
maybe three years old, and this test generated a lot of controversy. Edward R.
Murrow got Jim Conant to admit that the test stunk.
I went in and saw Edward R. Murrow afterwards and tried to explain our
position, but I also have to say I thought that was pretty poor.
Murrow himself said this country has never had an intellectual elite.
How did you react to this criticism? Do you think it was
Well, the selective service test was for deferment, not for eliminating the
possibility of serving. And there was the other important matter of keeping
the flow of scientists and other people moving along. Because the country
needed to have them.
But how did you react to the criticisms?
I didn't find it difficult. I went down to a Washington radio program once
a week with General Hershey or some of the others involved, explaining what it
was really about. It wasn't a deferment forever. It was to give a person a
chance to continue their education and be sure that we would have a strong
group of people, and scientists, and other fields after the war.
I also went out to the West and talked to people there.
Let's talk about the decision to go to ETS. What was attracting
you to go out on your own?
I had become interested in not only testing, but in the use of tests and
the records of students in school which is best indicated by rank in class, not
by grade, because the scoring system may change. And I was doing some studies
of matters like that, and whether you could correct for the school a person
came from. And I got an IBM punch and sorter tabulator, which nobody had at
Harvard at that time...So I was doing a lot of different studies. And I did
them in connection with the social studies tests, where I was the technical
consultant for the development of the social studies test at the scholarship
And so at any rate, I was interested in this whole mix. And I had hoped
that maybe Conant would be interested in increasing the amount of activity in
this area. I went to see him... And as we talked, I indicated this other
opportunity of going to the College Board. He said, "Well, how much salary do
you want?" Well, that wasn't what I was interested in. So I was a little
disappointed he didn't seem to respond to what I had really been interested in.
At the time I had the opportunity to go to the College Board, I thought
about it very carefully and put down a whole list of criteria by which I might
make a decision as to whether to stay at Harvard or go to the College Board.
And it was a close call, but there were 34 points for going to the College
Board, and 32 for staying at Harvard. One doesn't always abide by that kind of
thing. It might have been if it came out 34/32 the other way, I still would
But for better or worse, ETS is almost synonymous with the SAT. There's
almost a national obsession with educational opportunity. And these tests have
become very, very important in everyone's mind. Did you foresee that
I didn't foresee this. And in fact, I and others in the field of testing
have tried very hard not to have people put as much emphasis as they do. They
have a place, but they aren't everything. And I'm sure that there are some
colleges that use tests to a greater extent than they should. They have
cut-offs and they don't necessarily look at all the aspects of a student's
records. I mean it's not only his school record, but his extracurricular
record. What he's done for jobs, what he's contributed to society. All those
things should come into a selection process, as I see it. But unfortunately,
there are institutions where it's very difficult to spend the time to do the
I don't like it. I think that, for two reasons, you ought to have in the
institution, representatives of the different races, so that people get to know
them. And furthermore, in our society, you need to have people who are of
different races who are trained to be professionals, lawyers, doctors, and so
forth. So while it's a tough choice as to turning down somebody who's white,
who's got a higher test score, I think it's good to admit minority students, to
a degree. And of course, again, it's the whole record that counts.
With the national scholarship applications, we not only got references from
different kinds of teachers, but also on the people for whom they might have
worked. And here we get a lot of information about that. So I'm sorry that
things are going that way, and I don't know how one's going to stop it.
I think the obvious solution, of course, is to improve things from the
bottom. But in the meantime, I hope that there'll be reasonable numbers of
Some people argue to get rid of SATs completely. Do you think that's a
I think they're cutting off their nose to spite their face or something. I
think the thing is to use the SAT as one of a number of factors. But I think
it'd be less fair in admissions if you throw it out.
And less fair how?
Now I'll give you an example. When I was in charge of the scholarships at
Harvard, there was a fellow from Kentucky, not far from Nashville, Tennessee.
He happened to see a poster on the bulletin board of the school about the
Harvard national scholarships, and somebody suggested to him he ought to apply.
And so he did apply. He did well. The principal didn't have much excitement
about this but I sent a letter to the boy asking if he could meet me in
Nashville for an interview. Well, the principal then took him down, got him a
haircut, and got him properly dressed and drove him down. And I interviewed
him, and he won a scholarship.
He came from a family where he was the seventh of fifteen children,
virtually none of whom had had any significant time in school. He himself had
been in school for only about a year's worth at the time he was, he had an
accident, which is what caused it all.
His brother was chopping down a bushy tree, and by mistake, hit him on his
top of his foot and severed some tendons, so he couldn't work on the farm. So
he was allowed to go to school. And then because of the test score, he was
You wrote in your diary once, "What I hope to see established is the
moral equivalent of religion. But based on reason and science, rather than on
sentiments and tradition." What did you mean by that?
I think I always thought in terms of reason, and not religion. Even though
my father was a minister and a remarkably fine person, and I was religious in
my early years. I still think religion has caused about as much problem in the
world in the wars and things as they do good.
But you had a faith in reason.
Yeah. But I don't know how that applies to values and various sorts of
But what about an actual faith in testing?
Testing is only a better way of getting information about somebody than
otherwise--interviews or school records. So, I mean I'm not a person who goes
around with "testing is the answer to all problems," by any manner of
My attitude was always that the tests were useful and very helpful, but
they weren't everything. You had to take into account the school record, or
whatever other records you had in making any decisions, so that I'm I guess a
bit unhappy with the uses to which some colleges, or some institutions use
In what way?
Because they should not depend solely, or entirely, on the test. They
should try to learn more about the student, and have the student learn more
You think they use it as a crutch or an easy way out?
I'm afraid that may be the case. It may be the case that they use tests
because it's a simple way to just solve their problem. Whereas simple ways are
frequently not very satisfactory.
Do you think it's had a positive effect?
Yes, I think that testing on the whole has had a favorable effect on our
society. It causes problems, and they have to be dealt with, but that's the
way life is.
Did you think when you were embarking on the venture of starting ETS
that the test would actually permeate the country and the society as much as it
I don't think I thought about it, no. As I said, I think I was thinking
each day of the things that had to be done, and how you do them, rather than
the sort of thing that's going to be great.
who got in? |
the race issue |
sat & test prep |
history of the sat
the screening process |
test score gap |
getting in to berkeley |
tapes & transcripts |
pbs online |