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 is the psychologist who invented the SAT. 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.