It has long been understood that the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT)—which is an important part of the college application process in America—is culturally, socioeconomically and racially biased. But I, too, was literally “today years old” when I learned that the SAT was created by a eugenicist, Carl Brigham, whose purpose was to demonstrate that whites were naturally intellectually superior beings.
The SAT, like the similar American College Testing (ACT) test and other so-called “standardized tests,” purports to measure innate intellectual ability—aptitude rather than knowledge per se. Because all college applicants take the same test, the idea is that test scores should be more objective than, say, high school grades, since an “A” in one high school may be easier or more difficult to obtain than an “A” in another high school. But standardized test questions are anything but objective. To give just one example, research has shown that some of the SAT’s verbal questions favor white students because they reflect cultural expressions commonly used in dominant (white) society, so that white students have an advantage simply by virtue of growing up around white people.
Other research has demonstrated a clear correlation between family income and SAT scores, with students from wealthier families scoring higher. This is generally attributed to test preparation, which makes a demonstrable difference in test scores but can be out of reach of low-income families. Students from high-income families also typically have access to better educational opportunities, including better-financed public schools, not to mention private schools or expensive extracurricular educational experiences.
None of this is news. But in the I-can’t-believe-I-didn’t-know-this-before category, it turns out that in its origin, the SAT test was never even meant to be objective. The father of eugenics, Francis Galton (who coined the term in 1883), was also the father of a number of modern statistical methods. Galton “used his statistical acumen to test and measure the physiological and psychological behaviors of white European men, with the long-term goal of determining which ones were fit to reproduce.” Building on Galton’s work, Carl Brigham, a professor of psychology at Princeton, created the first scholastic aptitude test (based on IQ tests that had been used by the U.S. military) in 1926, with the avowed goal of upholding an American racial caste system. It was also meant to show the superiority of certain kinds of white people during a time of increased immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe: those with Nordic and Anglo-Saxon genetic roots were expected to score better, and thus be shown to be superior to, Jews.
In terms of upholding a racial caste system in the United States, it certainly seems to have worked, hasn’t it? Ironically, Brigham later disavowed the SAT, and wrote in an unpublished manuscript in 1930 that test scores measure not innate ability but are, instead, “a composite including schooling, family background, familiarity with English and everything else, relevant and irrelevant.”
Why has it taken American colleges—many of which are just now dropping standardized test scores as an admissions requirement—so long to get the memo?
Imagine if, instead—as historian Ibram X. Kendi has put it—“we measured literacy by how knowledgeable individuals are about their own environment: how much individuals knew all those complex equations and verbal and nonverbal vocabularies of their everyday life? What if we measured intellect by an individual’s desire to know? What if we measured intellect by how open an individual’s mind is to self-critique and new ideas?”
This needs to be the goal.
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SELECTED SOURCES AND FURTHER READING
Sidney Fussell, “The Problem With the SAT’s Idea of Objectivity,” The Atlantic (May 18, 2019).
Scott Jaschik, “New Evidence of Racial Bias on SAT,” Inside Higher Ed (June 21, 2010).
Ibram X. Kendi, “Why the Academic Achievement Gap is a Racist Idea,” African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) (Oct. 20, 2016).
Ibram X. Kendi, “Why Standardized Tests Have Standardized Postracial Ideology,” American Association of University Professors (Nov.-Dec. 2016).
Nicolas Lemann, “The Great Sorting,” The Atlantic (Sept. 1995).
Catherine Rampell, “SAT Scores and Family Income,” New York Times (Aug. 27, 2009).
John Rosales, “The Racist Beginnings of Standardized Testing,” National Education Association (NEA) (2019).
Joseph A. Soares, “#FAIL: The SAT Rebrand,” Aljazeera (Mar. 19, 2014).
David Shenk, “The Man Who Turned Darwin Into a Determinist,” The Atlantic (Nov. 24, 2009).
Thomas Toch, “The Meritocracy’s Caste System: What’s Good and Bad about the SAT,” The Brookings Institution (Dec. 1, 1999).