The Racist Origins of the SAT

While it unintentionally aided the disadvantaged in its earlier forms, the SAT was the fruit of a very poisonous tree.

Ninety years ago, on June 23, 1926, 8040 American high school students simultaneously pondered which of six words were “most closely related” and which numbers “come next” in a certain sequence. This first SAT was scored on a 200-to-800-point scale with 500 reflecting the median score. Aimed to test innate ability not knowledge acquired, the Scholastic Aptitude Test culminated two decades of experiments assessing intelligence that also produced the IQ test.

Dr. Carl Brigham, the psychologist who invented the SAT, also pioneered the Advanced Placement program. Unfortunately, this man most responsible for saddling two million American teens annually with No. 2 pencils and first-degree testing jitters was a Pilgrim-pedigreed, eugenics-blinded bigot. Brigham eventually repented. More important, these standardized tests became scientifically-validated admissions tickets into America’s meritocracy for the very immigrants and minorities Brigham hoped his tests would exclude.

Born in 1890 in Marlboro, Massachusetts, to a family descended from the Mayflower and enriched by a California Gold Rush-profiting grandfather, Carl Campbell Brigham was destined to go to Harvard. But, as one of his admirers would write—with no irony—“Something of the same spirit of adventure which sent his grandfather to California in 1849 must early have been active in determining Carl’s reactions to his environment.” Violating family tradition, he transferred to Princeton University. Following this great rebellion, he mostly lived within the Princeton bubble until he died in 1943.

As an undergraduate, class of 1912, Brigham studied psychology. His Ph.D. in 1916, “Variable Factors in the Binet Tests,” analyzed the work of the French psychologist Alfred Binet, who developed intelligence tests as diagnostic tools to detect learning disabilities. The Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman tweaked Binet’s work, producing today’s standard IQ test, the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Tests.

Binet, Terman, and Brigham stood at the intersection of powerful intellectual, ideological, and political trends shaping Western thought—and America—a century ago. The Age of Science and Standardization had begun. The forerunners of today’s liberals, Progressives were also control freaks seeking to standardize manufacturing, regulate business, and Americanize immigrants. In these consensus-seeking times, scientists became obsessed with deviations and handicaps, both physical and intellectual. And many social scientists, misapplying Charles Darwin’s evolving evolutionary science, and eugenics’ pseudo-science, worried about maintaining white purity. Stanford’s Lewis Terman expected that intelligence tests “bringing tens of thousands of high-grade defectives under the surveillance and protection of society” would “curtail… the reproduction of feeble-mindedness,” thereby reducing “crime, pauperism, and industrial inefficiency.”

As America absorbed millions of immigrants from Europe, its leading social scientists from the White Anglo Saxon Protestant elite somehow discovered that people like them were most refined and threatened by “infiltration” from others. Between the highest types, Nordics like himself and his peers, Brigham wrote, and “the Negro” at the low end of the spectrum, “but closer to the Negro than to the Nordic, we find the Alpine and Mediterranean types,” with Jews particularly flawed and threatening.

During World War I, standardized tests helped place 1.5 million soldiers in suitable units. The tests were more scientific yet still deeply biased. The Army Mental Tests boosted Brigham’s career, with his 1923 book A Study of American Intelligence assessing that massive effort.

All-American decency and idealism coexisted uncomfortably with these scientists’ equally American racism and closemindedness. This ideology reinforced the ongoing oppression of blacks, while applauding despicable new initiatives like the 1924 National Origins Act, restricting immigration shortly before millions of “swarthy” Eastern Europeans, especially Jews, would need saving from Nazi evil. Yet Brigham was also an educator, hoping to encourage underachievers not just segregate Americans ethnically. Thus nobility ultimately trumped the toxicity, especially combined with the counterattack against biological determinism and scientific racism led by culturally-oriented anthropologists emphasizing human plasticity like Franz Boas. America became today’s America without becoming Nazi Germany.

Forever tinkering, wielding his IBM punch cards, working with the College Entrance Examination Board (today’s College Board), Brigham developed Princeton’s “bogey,” a predictive score based on entering students’ high school grades and SAT numbers—to identify languishing students and spur them to fulfill their potential. And he initiated the Advanced Placement program, a resounding educational success inculcating excellence.

Ironically, as Brigham and others refined the tests, their precision undermined their initial goals, mocking their bogus biological distinctions. Standardized tests helped talented immigrants and minorities breach the elite’s ivy-covered bunkers. Validated by “objective” scores demonstrating their aptitude, Jews, Russians, Poles, Italians, Hungarians—and eventually blacks, Hispanics, and Asians—helped make college admissions more merit based.

By 1930, Brigham’s article “Intelligence Tests of Immigrant Groups” concluded: the infamous Army “study with its entire hypothetical superstructure of racial differences collapses completely.” By the 1950s and 1960s, the top universities were “talent searching,” looking for the “brainy kids,” regardless of ethnicity, Jerome Karabel writes in The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. The number of legacy admissions dropped as entering SAT scores soared. At Yale, the median SAT verbal score jumped from 634 in 1957 to 697 in 1966. Freshmen’s average height dipped too, from 26 percent of first-term Yalies standing 6 feet or higher in the 1950s to 20.6 percent a decade later.

The Affirmative Action counterattack viewing standardized tests as barriers for culturally underprivileged or simply different groups, intensified in the 1980s. Until then, these objective criteria advanced meritorious minorities. Whereas today, the disadvantaged are advantaged by a system more sensitive to disadvantage and the subjective, the college admissions revolution began because objective scores advantaged the disadvantaged.

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Bingham’s legacy remains controversial. Nicholas Lemann, who wrote a history of the SATs, The Big Test, and dismissed Bingham’s early work as “offensive,” credits Bingham for “chang[ing] his mind,” and becoming “one of the leading critics of the eugenics movement.” Other critics of standardized testing freeze Bingham and those tools in the 1920s. “Nothing significant has changed about the results of the SAT scores, or the outlook of its authors, since it was first written,” Rich Gibson insists, calling the whole enterprise “fascist” and “an equation of lies,” artificially defining intelligence as measurable.

Hindsight history satisfies ideologues but is as foolish as driving in reverse while still looking forward. We need to understand yesterday as it was not just judge it for failing to please us today. Condemn the bigotry. But also enjoy the irony that racists invented our meritocracy; blowback can be a blessing sometimes. In their politically correct oversimplifications, critics may think that SATs is to objectivity as life is to discrimination. But SATs is to objectivity as life is to complexity. Our society don’t always get it right but at least we demonstrate a tremendous aptitude for self-criticism and self-improvement.