The SAT: Public-Spirited or Preserving Privilege?

A Look Back at Historical Assumptions

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The latest rounds of public discussion about the SAT are being conducted without much attention to the test's origins or the assumptions embedded in its use. When, for example, the chairman of the College Board, Charles A. Kiesler, writes, "The development of the SAT was public-spirited. The intent was to increase access to first-rate higher education," people not familiar with the history of the SAT may take that statement at face value. ("Affirmative Action and the SAT," Commentary, Feb. 25, 1998.) This concerns me. I've spoken to more than a thousand educators in the past three years about the origins of the SAT and have found that fewer than 10 percent know this history, since it is not generally publicized in our colleges or professional organizations. As a result, the SAT is generally accepted as an inevitable and proper fixture of U.S. education, a part of the educational culture, an accurate measure of ability. Standardized tests, however, have not always existed, and I can imagine a world without them. After all, human beings were very successful learners before the advent of standardized tests in the early 1900s.

Whether the intent of the College Board when it was founded in 1900 was to increase access, regulate social mobility, or just to make things easier for the universities is unknown. Since relatively few students (mainly from the upper economic classes) went to college, the College Board had little impact on most people. Until 1926, when what was then called the Scholastic Aptitude Test appeared, College Board exams were essay tests. There is considerable evidence that the development of the SAT was influenced more by a desire to decrease access by certain ethnic groups than by public spirit. There was deep concern (perhaps hostility and fear are better descriptors) at the time among politicians and others about the changing nature of our country's immigrants. University educators worried about the impact on their student populations. The president of Columbia University, Nicholas Murray Butler, for example, described the quality of Columbia's 1917-18 freshman class as "depressing in the extreme. It is largely made up of foreign born and children of those but recently arrived in this country." Butler was instrumental in establishing the College Board, and Columbia was the first university to use intelligence tests in its admissions procedure.

Since intelligence tests play an important part in the history of the SAT, it is important to know about their origins. In 1905, Alfred Binet, a French psychologist, devised a scaled test to select students who needed special instruction to succeed in school. He never claimed that his test measured intelligence, and he stated, "We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism" that "intelligence of an individual is a fixed quantity, a quantity which one cannot augment." In the United States, Binet's tests were developed into instruments that claimed to measure intelligence. A key figure in that process was the psychologist Carl Brigham. In 1923, Brigham published A Study of American Intelligence, based on data from the first IQ tests, developed using Army recruits during World War I. Brigham concluded: "Our study ... has pointed at every step to the conclusion that the average intelligence of our immigrants is declining."

Brigham quoted approvingly from the 1918 text The Passing of the Great Race by Madison Grant, who was the chairman of the New York Zoological Society and a co-founder of the Galton Society, an organization mainly of scientists that was formed to promote eugenics. Wrote Brigham: "The results which we obtained by interpreting the American data by means of the race hypothesis supports Mr. Madison Grant's thesis of the superiority of the Nordic type." Grant's analysis divided Europeans into three types, the Nordics (from Western and Northern Europe), the Alpines (from Central Europe), and the Slavs (from Southern and Eastern Europe). "The Nordics are ... rulers, organizers, and aristocrats ... individualistic, self-reliant, and jealous of their personal freedom. ... [A]s a result they are usually Protestants. ... The Alpine race is always and everywhere a race of peasants," wrote Brigham, quoting Grant. Brigham also quotes Georges Vacher De Lapogue, the author of the 1899 book The Aryan: His Social Role, "The Alpine is the perfect slave, the ideal serf. ... "

Although Brigham's main focus was the immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, the Irish posed a problem since many people still regarded them contemptuously. In Brigham's view, "Ireland is largely Mediterranean." He quotes Grant's characterization of "the unstable temperament and the lack of coordinating and reasoning power so often found among the Irish."

The Bell Curve is a recent example of an attempt to use standardized tests to promote elitist policies.

It is also important to realize that in the 1920s, prejudice against Jews was widespread, socially acceptable, and institutionalized. For example, the president of Dartmouth University recently apologized for Dartmouth's actions against Jews and released an exchange of letters, written in 1934, between an alumnus and the director of admissions. The alumnus wrote: "The campus seems more Jewish each time I arrive in Hanover. And unfortunately many of them (on quick judgment) seem to be the 'kike' type." The reply: "I am glad to have your comments on the Jewish problem, and I shall appreciate your help along this line in the future. If we go beyond the 5 percent or 6 percent in the Class of 1938, I shall be grieved beyond words." Given these attitudes, it is no surprise that Carl Brigham wrote: "Our figures, then, would rather tend to disprove the popular belief that the Jew is intelligent. ... [H]e has the head, form, stature, and color of his Slavic neighbors. He is an Alpine Slav."

African-Americans received Brigham's greatest contempt: "The decline of American intelligence will be more rapid than the decline of the intelligence of European national groups owing to the presence here of the Negro."

In 1998, these claims sound absurd to most people. Brigham, however, was not an isolated fanatic. His views were supported by many leading geneticists and psychologists at prestigious universities. The Madison Grant book was reviewed favorably in many academic journals. In 1925, the College Board appointed Brigham (then an assistant professor at Princeton University) to head the commission developing the Scholastic Aptitude Test. He was appointed secretary of the College Entrance Examination Board and was the driving force in the development of the SAT. Brigham was an elected secretary of the American Psychological Association, and a library building at the Educational Testing Service--the organization that took over the production of the SAT in 1947--bears his name. Robert Yerkes, the president of the American Psychological Association and a professor at Harvard University and later at Yale University, stated in the foreword to Brigham's book: "The author presents not theories or opinions but facts. It behooves us to consider their reliability and their meaning, for no one of us as a citizen can afford to ignore the menace of race deterioration or the evident relations of immigration to national progress and welfare."

Carl Brigham later recanted his study--but not his views on race. Defenders of the SAT can (and do) claim that just because Brigham was racist does not mean the test is biased, and that the SAT is not a biased predictor of success in college. They fail to acknowledge, however, that the SAT adds very little, if at all, to other predictors and gives an advantage to privileged students who can afford to take a preparation course. In my view, although much of the blatant racism of the early part of this century has been attenuated, the elitist values and assumptions embedded in the origins of the SAT persist. The SAT continues to play a crucial role in determining access to education and profoundly influences the whole culture of education in this country--what learning schools think is important and how to assess it, for example.

Even though the College Board has dropped the name Scholastic Aptitude Test, its link with a notion of intelligence still exists in the minds of many people. The Bell Curve is a recent example of an attempt to use standardized tests to promote elitist policies. ("Putting it all together, success and failure in the American economy and all that goes with it, are increasingly a matter of the genes that people inherit.") The fact that the research supporting the development of the SAT was acclaimed by many prominent psychologists should sound a cautionary note in any appeal to rely on psychological research that attempts to compare groups of human beings.

Although many educators (particularly classroom teachers) know the worthlessness of standardized tests, and the claims of their proponents have been refuted, the testing industry continues to grow and consume tremendous resources in time, energy, and money. When a University of California task force proposed the elimination of the SAT in determining admissions eligibility, an ETS spokesperson was in California the next day warning about the deterioration of educational quality. He did not mention the deterioration of ETS income.

The beliefs that some people are better than others and that success is a matter of genes and independent of societal and familial conditions tend to perpetuate discrimination. This discrimination falls the hardest on people from lower socioeconomic classes who do not receive equal educational opportunity and on people of color who endure subtle and sometimes blatant racism that affects their learning and self-confidence. It is essential that educators deeply examine the generally unacknowledged assumptions embodied in the use of the SAT and other standardized tests. Among them are the following:

  • It is possible to measure understanding and potential with reasonable accuracy and communicate it meaningfully.
  • Standardized testing does not interfere with student learning.
  • It is possible to design standardized tests that are not culturally, gender, and class biased.
  • Performance is independent of the testing environment and culture of the school.

I believe, on the contrary, that:

  • No person's understanding or potential can be reduced to a number, and it is disrespectful to do so.
  • Standardized testing interferes with student learning by causing anxiety and coercing students to memorize for the test rather than focus on learning. Testing leads teachers to focus on test scores rather than students as complex learners.
  • It is beyond our current capability to design bias-free standardized tests. Tests will tend to incorporate the bias of the test-makers.
  • Performance on tests depends on the environment in the classroom, the attitude of the teacher or test-giver, the cultural climate of the school, as well as the societal messages about his or her intelligence and potential that the student has internalized.

The SAT is a capstone of an educational system that, in spite of the best intentions and the dedication of many talented educators, serves to preserve privilege and economic inequality in this country. The failure to provide equal educational opportunities to all of our children is undermining the very foundations of our democracy. If the College Board were truly public-spirited, it would abolish the SAT immediately.

Vol. 17, Issue 31, Pages 45, 60

Published in Print: April 15, 1998, as The SAT: Public-Spirited or Preserving Privilege?
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