The Racist Origins of the SAT

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Gil Troy, a native New Yorker, is Professor of History at McGill University. His tenth book on American history, The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, was just published by Thomas Dunne Books of St. Martin’s Press. Follow him on Twitter @GilTroy

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.” ...




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