secrets of the sat
photo of henry chauncey
henry chauncey: He was the first director of the Educational Testing Service and an assistant dean of admissions under Harvard president James Conant. Together, Conant and Chauncey were instrumental in the 30's and 40's in establishing the broad use of standardized testing in the U.S.
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Nick Lemann mentions this moment when you were sitting in the church at Cambridge Common-- the end of the Second World War--and a thought came to you at that moment, and you went home and you wrote in your diary-- "Finally, I decided to take the plunge."

Yes, I undoubtedly did write in my notebook that finally I decided to take the plunge and to accept the offer to go to the College Board rather than stay at Harvard. And it was a close decision, but one that I've never regretted.

But a tough decision?

Yes, because Harvard is a hard place to leave and this was a new venture that one didn't know what would come of it. But it's just one of those decisions.

What was it that interested you? What about testing did you find captivating?

I think I was interested in the full development of each individual. And one could learn about individuals from tests, not just the SAT, but other tests would be developed, too. And that is still something I believe in. That you try and find out what the interests and capabilities are of individuals. And you want to bring about the full development of each one to have the opportunity.

I think that is not what I was, the mythic part--or that you were getting into the person's mind. It was more that there was an instrument here, or there would be more instruments as other kinds of tests were developed that would be helpful.

Helpful for what?

My attitude was always that the tests were very helpful, but they weren't everything.  You had to take into account whatever other records you had in making any decisions. So I'm  a bit unhappy with the uses to which some colleges, or some institutions use this. 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 now?

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 justified?

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 examinations.

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 have gone.

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 possibility?

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 right thing.

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 minorities admitted.

Some people argue to get rid of SATs completely. Do you think that's a good idea?

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 found out.

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 things.

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 means.

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 this.

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 about himself.

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 does?

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.

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