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teachers' guide: secrets of the sat


Enhanced video clip "Where does the SAT come from?" (Click to watch clip)
In cue 5:09, narrator: "How did the SAT become a national obsession?" Out cue 8:19, narrator: "If testing was to be like the standard gauge for railroads, then California, with the largest university system in the country, was the golden spike."

This clip tells us the history of the SAT-from its roots in the IQ test first given to soldiers during WWI, to its adaptation for use in college admissions by former Harvard president James Bryant Conant and his assistant Henry Chauncey. Through standardized testing, Conant and Chauncey aimed to open the doors of the nation's top colleges and universities to a new pack of future leaders. According to Nicholas Lemann, author of The Big Test: The Secret History of American Meritocracy, the two men hoped to "break the hold of the old elite and replace it with a new national group selected on pure intelligence and put them in charge of the country."

Share this quote from the clip as the basis for discussion:
"Very hard choices have to be made in the admissions process. And they have to be made not on the basis of who has achieved a certain test score result at this point in their lives, but on the basis of which set of applicants will really contribute most to the quality of education at this institution and to the larger purposes for America and society; to the need of the society for diverse leadership."
     -William Bowen, former president of Princeton University

Discussion questions

  1. What do you think of Bowen's statement? Should it be the role of an elite university to consider the "need of society for diverse leadership?"
  2. Do you think today's leadership reflects the "face of America?"
  3. What is merit? What factors should determine merit?
  4. Is there a way to measure merit objectively, as in standardized testing, or is it a subjective concept?
  5. How do the following definitions of merit compare with your personal definition?

Merit (mer' it) n. to be deserving; being entitled; excellence, worth; something which entitles reward [Oxford English Dictionary] to acquire favor: to be entitled to reward or honor [Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged]

See Handout "What Does the SAT Measure?" for more on this topic.
(download handouts in MS Word format - 153K)
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