The Structure of Success in America

In America perhaps only race is a more sensitive subject than the way we sort ourselves out in the struggle for success. At the center of that struggle are higher education and ETS, the Educational Testing Service. Herewith an inside look at the history and workings of one of the most familiar yet least public of American institutions

"Finally, I decided to take the plunge," Henry Chauncey wrote in his diary on Sunday, February 4, 1945, a few days before his fortieth birthday, and so a natural day for assessing the course of his life. "From a safe and respected job I am embarking on an opportunity whose development depends very much on what I do." The safe and respected job was an assistant deanship at Harvard, where he had been working as an administrator for fifteen years; the opportunity was a position in the nascent field of educational testing, where Chauncey would be in on the founding of an organization that could, he thought, in effect serve as the personnel office of the postwar United States, using multiple-choice mental tests to assess large segments of the civilian population for the first time in the country's history.

Chauncey, descended from clergymen (his father was an Episcopalian minister, his ancestors Puritans), went to church, and afterward he added to the day's diary entry:

During Church this morning a thought occurred to me which though not new was amplified in its implications.... As soon as we can put in numerical terms the needs for individuals in different types of employment, nationally and locally, we will be able to embark through appropriate tests on a census of the population in relation to those jobs.... Since we do not want to prescribe what a person should do we can indicate to the boy or girl the probability of success or failure in each field of work and the demand for people of his combination of abilities.... This project requires consideration from a lot of angles but men of vision in the field of testing, vocational guidance, government, economics, education could be consulted individually and eventually in groups and a program eventually developed. Men with whom this might be discussed might even be so high in authority as ... President Roosevelt himself.

With this dream in mind Henry Chauncey accepted the job, which metamorphosed into the first presidency of the Educational Testing Service -- today one of the most familiar but least public of major American institutions, whose origins and rise to influence have never before been described in detail. ETS and its tests are a national obsession, deeply worked into the fabric of middle-class life. They have generated a large, independent test-prep industry and have strongly influenced elementary and secondary education, one of whose central goals is preparation for ETS tests. They are constantly referred to in cultural commentary, in sources from Boyz N the Hood to The Wall Street Journal. ETS is more than just an important organization. It is an essential part of a larger nexus: American higher education, whose growth to a scale and significance previously unimagined anywhere in the world was one of the crucial developments in our society during the past half century; and, more broadly, what the eminent sociologist Robert K. Merton calls the structure of opportunity -- a subject that ranks with its close relative, race relations, at the top of the list of the defining concerns of America.


HENRY Chauncey became interested in mental testing the moment he heard about it. His mind, like the minds of his Puritan forebears, was attracted to a blend of purity, order, idealism, and grandeur, which testing seemed to embody. During his first year of college, which he spent at Ohio State tuition-free, because his father was the rector of a big church in Columbus, he was given a multiple-choice placement test (on which, as would be the case whenever he took a test, he scored well but not outstandingly), and he also took a course on testing. At Harvard, alma mater of Chaunceys since the 1600s, where Henry enrolled after the year in Columbus, he studied testing under another pioneer in the field, Philip Rulon. The distinguishing feature of Chauncey's undergraduate career, however, was that he was a star athlete. A towering, moon-faced, big-jawed paragon of self-confidence, Chauncey was a good enough baseball player to be recruited by the Boston Braves, and in football he made what one of his classmates later called "that greatest of all forward passes, and also the most aristocratic," to his friend William Saltonstall, for a touchdown in the 1926 Harvard-Yale game.

Among the crowd in the Yale Bowl that day was Richard Gummere, the headmaster of the William Penn Charter School, in Philadelphia, who, as Chauncey half jokingly put it later, was so impressed by the touchdown pass that he offered Chauncey a job as a teacher. In 1929, after two years at Penn Charter, Chauncey returned to Harvard as an assistant dean, with the eventual goal of starting his own boarding school. But his interests soon took him elsewhere.

In January of 1932 Chauncey attended a lecture at Harvard by William S. Learned, a social scientist (at that time a somewhat exotic new breed) on the staff of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Learned described an ambitious study (studies were exotic then too) that the Carnegie Foundation had been conducting for nearly five years in Pennsylvania, in which standardized achievement tests were administered to tens of thousands of high school and college students.

Shockingly, the researchers found, the relationship between the students' test scores and their level of education was quite weak. Many high school students outscored college students, and more than half of those high school students who did not go on to college tested at a higher level than a quarter of college juniors. In 1932 it was miraculous that students' educational achievement could be scientifically measured across a broad range of schools in this way, instead of being judged merely on the basis of course hours taken and degrees attained. The study seemed to hold the promise that after century upon unchanged century a new, rationalized era in education might dawn.

Presented by

Nicholas Lemann

"The Atlantic has a national constituency of readers who are interested in high-quality writing about what's going on in the country and in the world," says Nicholas Lemann, "not just in politics and economics but also in their own personal lives. The Atlantic is a single source they can really trust to give them what they want."

Over the years, Lemann has written cover articles on the underclass, the War on Poverty, and the history of standardized testing in the United States. The articles on the underclass were "field tests," he says, for his best-selling book The Promised Land (1991), which received virtually unanimous acclaim from a spectrum of sources. The book established him as a sought-after commentator on race relations and other fundamental aspects of American society. "Thanks to Lemann, white America will never be able to think about the ghetto poor in quite the same way again," Esquire observed.

Lemann joined The Atlantic Monthly as national correspondent in 1983. His first cover article, "In the Forties" (January, 1983), introduced a striking portfolio of photographs that, Lemann wrote, "have the power to suggest the finality with which the life of the nation changed in a generation."

Lemann has also written numerous pieces in The Atlantic Monthly on subjects spanning national and local politics, education, television, and biography. He has contributed numerous book reviews and, in the Travel section, has guided readers through the past history and present beauty of the Catskill Mountains.

Lemann was born and raised in New Orleans. He attended Harvard, graduating in 1976 with a degree in American history and literature. Before joining the staff of The Atlantic Monthly, he worked at The Washington Monthly, Texas Monthly, and The Washington Post.

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In