Henry Chauncey, 97; Pioneered Use of SAT in College Admissions

Times Staff Writer

Henry Chauncey, who as founder of the Educational Testing Service played a pivotal role in the rise of standardized testing in college admissions, died Tuesday at his home in Shelburne, Vt. He was 97 and died of natural causes.

Chauncey was president of the testing service from its inception in 1947 until his retirement in 1970. During that period, he championed the use of the exam then known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT, as a tool to extend opportunities for a high-quality education beyond the privileged classes.

“He hoped that it would make it possible for colleges and universities to admit people based on their merit rather than on their social or economic background by finding a standardized way to make judgments about people’s intellectual abilities,” said his son Henry.

Although the vision for a merit-based entrance system came from Harvard College President James Bryant Conant in the 1930s, Chauncey provided the managerial skill to make it happen.


Under his guidance at ETS, the SAT became a powerful -- many would say overbearing -- presence in academic life, fretted over by millions of anxious high school seniors desiring good scores to impress the colleges of their dreams. ETS, which administers the test, grew into a large, influential organization that today has more than 2,000 employees at its Princeton, N.J., campus.

“Henry was a truly gifted administrator. He built ETS from scratch,” said Nicholas Lemann, author of the recent book “The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy.” “Conant, his mentor, was shocked by how big Henry made it.”

Conant wanted to fulfill Thomas Jefferson’s hope of a “natural aristocracy,” based on ability rather than the privileges of high birth. Chauncey was an assistant dean at Harvard in 1933 when Conant asked him to help expand the student body beyond the usual circle of Northeastern prep school graduates. Was there a test, Conant asked, that could help determine who might be worthy recipients of a Harvard scholarship?

Chauncey found an answer in the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which had been invented by a Princeton psychologist, Carl Brigham. A modified IQ test, it had been used in a pilot program in 1926 involving 8,000 high school students.


Brigham, was opposed to Chauncey’s and Conant’s vision of the test to build a better, more diverse ruling elite. But, four years after he died in 1943, ETS was founded with Chauncey as president, Conant as chairman of the board and the SAT as the centerpiece of an ambitious plan to spread the idea of meritocratic admissions to other top-rated schools.

Chauncey saw the test as a tool that could help people understand their abilities. “It seemed to me,” he told an interviewer, “that we knew more about the horses in the country than we knew about the people of the country.”

The test, now taken by about 2 million students a year, sank deep roots in American education, in large part because of Chauncey’s marketing skill. Striving to expand interest in the test beyond the elite Eastern colleges, he established a Berkeley office and recruited UC Berkeley Chancellor (and later UC President) Clark Kerr for the ETS board of trustees. Kerr, according to Lemann’s book, embraced the SAT as a tool that would help UC become a top research institution. It would do this by ensuring that only the brightest students were admitted.

In Lemann’s view, the SAT also was critical in shaping Kerr’s Master Plan, which established California’s three-tiered public education system and funneled the highest-scoring students to UC and others to the state and community colleges.

Over the years, the SAT has been the focus of raging debates over its fairness, attacked for cultural biases that critics say have put women and many minorities at a disadvantage. It remains a hot potato in the post-affirmative action age. Earlier this year, the UC regents were poised to drop the SAT as an admissions requirement until the College Board, which owns the test, promised to develop a new one.

Chauncey disliked the emphasis college admissions officials placed on the SAT.

“The controversy in great part arises because some people use the test as the sole measure” of college fitness, said his son. “My father always believed that was a terrible mistake.”

The son of an Episcopal minister, Chauncey was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and grew up in Columbus, Ohio. He was descended from Puritans who came to Massachusetts from England in 1637.


He was educated at Groton, then attended Ohio State University for a year. Through the generosity of a Wall Street financier, he was able to transfer to Harvard, where he majored in philosophy but also studied psychology and educational testing.

Within a year of his graduation in 1928 he was hired as an assistant dean of freshmen and assistant coach of freshman football and baseball. He chaired the committee on scholarships, work that brought him to his later achievements in testing.

During a two-year leave of absence during World War II, he worked as associate director of the Army-Navy College Qualifying Tests. He later oversaw the development of tests that were used to determine which draft prospects would receive college deferments.

He formally resigned from Harvard to become president of ETS after the war, in 1947.

Part of Chauncey’s legacy, said ETS Vice President Eleanor Horne, was that he made large-scale testing a reality. But he also “insisted that testing practices be grounded in research,” she said, “and that it be dedicated to meeting the needs of individuals and educational institutions, and not testing companies.”

Lemann, who considered Chauncey a friend, said it was “unbearably ironic” that the ETS founder died a day after the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear an important affirmative action case involving the right of the University of Michigan to allow race as a factor in admissions. The policy discounted to a degree the role of test scores, which displeased critics.

“That case gave Henry great pain,” Lemann said, noting that “there is a direct line between the advent of the SAT and ... the creation of and assault on affirmative action. All of these lawsuits are based on SAT scores or LSAT scores. It tremendously bothered Henry that his creation was being used for that purpose by conservatives.”

Chauncey is survived by his third wife, Janet; eight children; 14 grandchildren and 3 great-grandchildren.