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A Faithful Mirror: Reflections on the College Board and Education in America

reviewed by Jonathon Gillette - 2004

coverTitle: A Faithful Mirror: Reflections on the College Board and Education in America
Author(s): Michael C. Johanek (Editor)
Publisher: The College Board, New York City
ISBN: 0874476712 , Pages: , Year: 2001
Search for book at Amazon.com

A Faithful Mirror: Reflections on the College Board and Education in America, edited by Michael C. Johanek, is a useful and interesting collection of essays commissioned by the College Board as part of its Centennial celebration. The essays look back on the variety of ways in which secondary and higher education institutions wove a K-16 system.  In each of the stitching sessions the College Board played a role. For gaining admission to college it was the College Entrance Examination Board (CEEB) and the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). For curriculum articulation between secondary schools and universities, it was the CEEB and later the Advanced Placement exam (AP). Financial aid for worthy and needy students, involved the SAT and for expanding access for women and students of color, the CEEB and SAT.  The quasi-public College Board contributed to the modern organizational field of education, the institutional webs of connections and relationships that shape perceptions and behaviors across the entire K-12 system.

The book is not a history of the College Board but rather seeks to set activities of the Board in the larger context of its time. The book does, however, have a fairly consistent vision of the Board, one that emerges within and across a number of essays. The authors point to the myriad of social forces that shaped and constrained the Board:  the drive for legitimacy, the drive for organizational viability, pressures of markets and shifting societal conceptions of merit.  The essays are first rate on this score. But there is an undertone, most notable in Robert Hampel's history of the Educational Testing Service and Marvin Lazerson's summative chapter, suggesting that the College Board was without agency, without influence, without ideology. To my mind, this is an incomplete picture. Yes, it responded but it also shaped our current view of merit.  Yes, markets are important influences but so is the competition of ideas that is concurrent with the competition for students.

Despite this weakness, these essays enrich our understanding of how we have the educational system we have today.  Michael Johanek, in his elegantly conceived introduction, makes the case for the usefulness of an historical perspective for contemporary educators and policymakers. He points to the importance of recovering "prior visions of the world that did not reach fruition" so that we can "expand the ways in which we can imagine our metropolitan lives" (p. xxii). The fact that merit has been defined in different ways in different times helps free us from our current failures of imagination. Additionally, Johanek notes the importance of identifying significant historical trade-offs. "Prudent answers today to educational issues such as those involved in financial aid depend upon our recognition of the trade-offs made by prior generations, for trade-offs are inevitably made, together with our judgment about what balance we collectively desire now" (p. xx). Trade-offs abound in these essays, and as noted by Ellen Lagemann in the Foreword,  "the unintended consequences of seemingly sensible actions came to be revealed" (p. x).

The book is divided into five sections. Section I - The Struggle to Define an Educated Person contains three essays, although Joseph Kett's essay that begins Section II is better placed in this section.   Collectively these essays demonstrate how early and how complex the connections were between k-12 and higher education. Hosts of different stakeholders made demands on actors at all levels.  Politics, markets, legitimacy, societal concepts - including anti-Semitism - shape the outcome of this emerging educational field.

David L. Angus and Jeffrey Mirel's "Presidents, Professors and Lay Boards of Education: The Struggle for Influence Over the American High School, 1860-1910" examines the early relationship between the colleges and universities and growing numbers of American high schools.  They paint a more complex picture than is usual, including lay boards as a third member of a dynamic and changing relationship.  Their premise takes aim at the dominant interpretation that universities exerted great influence, in particular the Committee of Ten Report.  Rather, they see lay boards as key players, exerting their prerogative in matters of curriculum and responding to shifts in local political conditions by changing curriculum. 

The rapid growth in numbers of high schools, declining attendance in colleges and universities, and the emergence of non-examination admission in some colleges undercut the power of even elite colleges and created a dependence on the high schools and thus their local boards.  In the end, the authors see the colleges changing in substantial ways while high schools modified little of their overall programming - and these changes were for only the small number of their students slated to go to college.  If higher education "lost" this battle they also set the stage for colleges and high schools to make common cause, and to begin to wrestle from lay leaders the control of the curriculum. In other words, to "professionalize" the decision making process. This alliance laid the foundation for the Progressive Era ascendancy of expertise.

Harold Wechsler's  "Eastern Standard Time: High School-College Collaboration and  Admission to College, 1880-1930" portrays the historical movement in college admissions from oral exams to written exams to certificate programs to College Entrance Examination Board (CEEB) exams to Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT). The early part of the essay follows many of the earlier themes: the influence of the rapid growth of high school enrollment, markets, and competition among colleges. He is explicit in examining the trade-off s made by the colleges. "[In 1915] voluntary remained the watchword, but the founding of CEEB marked the beginning of an era in which colleges traded autonomy (increasingly involuntarily) - to public authorities, accrediting associations, and sometimes foundations - for assurance of quality and ease of student access" (p. 59). He also deduces that high schools retained substantial influence over not just admissions but curriculum: college bound students had to study fewer classics, and colleges accepted some vocational course work.

But, as we see in a number of the book's essays, a resolution at one time sets the stage for the next struggle for influence.  Wechsler notes that growing concerns about lowered standards and loss of classical curriculum, joined with anti-Semitic sentiments, create a new push on the part of colleges to regain control over admissions and lead to the rise in the use of intelligence tests, which purported to discern ability scientifically independent from curriculum mastery. Added to "selective admissions," whereby pools of qualified applicants are created from which individuals are selected based on "other" factors, college faculty was spared from teaching "stupid boys with clever tutors."

Robert Orrill's  "Grades 11-14: The Heartland or Wasteland of American Education" revisits what he terms a notable exception in the poor collaboration between colleges and high schools - the Ford Foundation initiative in 1950-51 between Andover, Exeter, Lawrenceville, Harvard, Princeton and Yale resulting in their report, "General Education in School and College." Commenting on the beginnings of what would become the Advanced Placement exam (AP), Orrill provides the original historical roots of this group and helps to explain how its initial mission was to restore the "natural unity" to 11-14 education - a construct that has since disappeared from the educational landscape. The essay is particularly interesting in that he makes a case for the college feeling squeezed in the middle - pushed by forces of democratization from below (through the high schools, a natural extension of an American institution, the common school) and by forces of science from above (from the emerging graduate schools and research universities). 

"A Class Act: Collegiate Competition and American Society" by Joseph Kett "explores several critical junctures in the history of ranking students, and attempts to relate each to changes in public life" (p. 106). In essence, it is an examination of societal conceptions of merit and how colleges were sensitive to reflecting those concepts. Kett begins with the Adams-Jefferson period and the concurrent influence of rhetorical skill in colleges, the role of literary society, and the high value students placed on gaining "parts" in commencement ceremonies - developing a "precocity (that) was just the flip side of the quality they shared with American public men, their 'habit of talking and writing about things of which they have but small knowledge" (p.118).

This concept of merit shifted markedly under Jackson to the discipline of the party with its emphasis on rules and regulations.  Colleges turned increasingly to a marking system and sought to eliminate much of the conflict over the more subjective system.  This system too began to shift as the relationship between collegiate life and public life shifted toward the corporate sector, elevating the qualities of "power," "energy," and "fiber." Kett reminds us that there have been many forms of merit and makes the case that colleges follow and reflect rather than shape society's definitions.

Section II - Merit, Minorities and Admissions Debate provides two historical cases: women at the beginning of the twentieth century and students of color during the 1960s-1990s.  Andrew Walton's "Cultivating a Place for Selective All-Female Education in a Coeducational World" traces the role of women leaders of all women's colleges in the establishment of the College Entrance Examination Board (CEEB) and how it was useful to the women as a way to support their institutions.  The women were important on two counts. First, their institutions had an impressive slice of the post-secondary market. Second, since at least the 1870s the modern high school - the modern "gateway" to higher studies and career - was dominated by female students and teachers" (p. 165). Institutional autonomy of the all-female colleges was compromised but the early goal of women educators - to demonstrate the intellectual competence of women - was strengthened by bringing the power of their market to the expansion of the CEEB.  Here a standardized test for all institutionalized and confirmed the achievements of women.

In sharp contrast, by the 1960s expanding opportunities for students of color were blocked by standard yardsticks of merit, the exams of the College Board and the SAT.  Julie A. Reuben’s "Merit, Mission, and Minority Students: The History of Debate Over Special Admission Programs" presents a brief history of affirmative action in higher education between 1960 and the 1990s and gives a sense of the ways in which colleges and universities chose to act in the face of pressures to expand access for students of color.  Options stay within the narrow terrain of acceptance of the importance of the SAT and other "objective" measures as none of the higher education institutions explicitly made public the perspective that merit is not "something easily defined, identified and ranked." The choices thus become remediation, open enrollment, or preference and not a redefinition of merit, a process that previous essays demonstrated had happen in a variety of ways in previous eras.

I should point out that this is how I read Reuben's essay. The essay itself is almost entirely chronological in nature and spends little time on analysis of the particular issue of defining merit for that time. She writes little about the particular role of the College Board in the debate.  I was also disappointed by the author's failure to differentiate between state, selective, and non-selective colleges.

Section III turns to assessment. Robert Hampel's "The Origins of the Educational Testing Service" sets out what seems to be the Board's own view.  He writes: "Some historians place the origins of ETS within large interpretive frameworks, such as the technocratic visions of philanthropists or the smug designs of an 'Eastern Establishment.' We are less willing to see the origins of ETS as a manifestation of imperial patterns and forces.  The ETS founders were caught up in the less dramatic, but nonetheless significant, exploration of the conditions required for survival" (p.248) (my emphasis).

Clearly this is in contrast to Nicholas Lemann's (1999) highly popular history of the ETS.  But the distinction seems over drawn. Hampel's history is an interesting addition to Lemann's book and in no way blunts its message about the power and scope of the organization. Rather, Hampel attends more to organizational dynamics: demonstrating capacity to a key funder through expansion, self-sufficiency in the market, and the creation of research support.  Organization man at ETS does not negate the presence of the evangelical outreach of Henry Chauncey and others. 

Maris Vinovskis's  "The Federal Government and the Development of State-level NAEP Student Assessments" is an interesting review of the emergence of NAEP as a state-by-state assessment that allowed for comparison across states. She reviews the past barriers and objections and describes the shifting priorities of policy makers that pressed for its refinement, usage, and publication.  This is a timely and useful piece as the resistance to its expanded use involved echoes of today's debate over standardized and now increasingly federalized testing. Issues such as knowledge of results but not causes, in fact, may mask causes, psychometric complications to make comparisons valid, the temptations to make more of the results by policy makers than are sustainable by the data, and the allocation of additional costs without any benefit analysis.

Section IV - Accounting for Access, Paying for College is a welcome addition to essays about higher education.  The two essays, Rupert Wilkinson's  "Plural Ends, Contested Means: Student Financial Aid in American History" and Michael McPherson and Morton Schapiro's  "The End of Student Aid Era? Higher Education Finance in the United States" remind us that it is always useful to follow the money.  Both show that societal struggles to define both worth and merit led to shifting programs, unintended consequences, and reflected larger public policy trends.  Taking us from Harvard of the 1600s to current times, the issues of financial aid are inextricably bound with issues of access, privilege, merit, and the conflict between the common good and individual advantage. In addition, McPherson and Schapiro assert that agreements among universities that undercut their own competitive advantage but provide for the common good are difficult to sustain.

Section V - Reflections on a Century contains Marvin Lazerson's summative essay for the book, "The College Board and American Educational History."  Here one finds much of the material and themes from the previous essays in a shorter form. In addition, there is more on the growing power of the SAT and on the roll out of the AP exam.  In many ways this essay is a microcosm of the book. It points to influences less emphasized by other historians but fails to outline any active role played by the College Board itself. In addition, there are important and powerful threads across these essays that remain unconnected.  The ties among the early SAT, intelligence testing, and anti-Semitism are barely mentioned.  Nor is the effect on equal access through our increasing use of narrow indicators of merit by contemporary College Board exams put in historical perspective.  Lazerson does end with strong evidence that higher education itself is shifting away from a public good and toward an individual career path; a trend noted by other historians, in particular David Labaree's (1997) recent work.

Overall this book is a reminder that we have a K-16 system. The book misses the important point that the tools we have within that system, especially those created by the College Board, shape as well as reflect the state of that system. But by widening our view upward to higher education, downward to the K-12 system, and backward in time and space, it provides an opportunity for us to recover our sense of imagination as we struggle to create trade-offs that will more effectively achieve our contemporary purposes.


Labaree, D. (1997). How to succeed in school without really learning New Haven: Yale Press.

Lemann, N. (1999). The big test: The secret history of the American meritocracy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 2, 2004, p. 228-234
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11164, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 9:42:05 PM

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About the Author
  • Jonathon Gillette
    Yale University
    E-mail Author
    JONATHON GILLETTE is the Director of the Teacher Preparation Program at Yale University. He is also a Lecturer in the Sociology Department and has an appointment at the Child Study Center. His writing and research focuses on the nature of the task of teaching in context, group and organizational dynamics, and school reform.
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