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The Disturbing Origins of the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test)

Monday, May 18, 2015 23:06
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Taking the SAT test has long been a critical part of the college admission process.  Great weight is put on a person’s scores in considering acceptability for admission in the majority of the most desirable schools.  Parents may spend many thousands of dollars and their child’s lifetime preparing for this test.  Lani Guinier is no fan of the test and is appalled by the significance accorded it.  In her book, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy:Democratizing Higher Education in America, she rips into it, claiming it does nothing to identify those who would merit recognition as potential contributors to the health and well-being of society.  Rather, it has become a tool for propagating an aristocracy and establishing a plutocracy.
The SAT is now known simply as the SAT.  Its original name, and the name under which it was marketed to the nation, was the Scholastic Aptitude Test.  As the name suggests, it claimed to be able to separate the high academic performers from the low academic performers thus allowing college admissions committees to better select the students in which they were interested.  Guinier tells her readers that several studies have concluded that the performance of college students is only very weakly correlated with SAT scores.  A much stronger correlation exists between high school grade point averages and college performance.
“So if the SAT does not measure aptitude—and if it doesn’t even pretend to measure achievement—then what does it measure?”
“The SAT’s most reliable value is its proxy for wealth.  It is normed to white, upper-middle-class performance, as numerous studies have shown when the test is viewed through the lenses of race and class.”
Guinier presents in tabular form the average SAT score as a function of family income to support her contention.  Here we will produce the equivalent result from The Reproduction of Privilege, an article by Thomas B. Edsall in the New York Times.
The elite universities have always had high school performance as an indicator of potential college performance but decided against depending on it.  At first glance, that seems like a reasonable thing to do.  Different school systems and different regions possess a range of academic rigor, why depend on being able to sort all that out?  However, further consideration suggests that the decision has its basis in some outmoded conclusions related to what is responsible for exceptional performance.  High school grades are indicative of both basic intelligence and the hard work of the student.  Both attributes are important for future performance.  The SAT came into prominence in an era when academic performance was more likely to be viewed as a result of a fixed and innate degree of intelligence.  This was the era when it was thought that testing could determine intelligence and identify those who could be depended upon to be high performers.  It was also the era when eugenics was respected as a science in this country.
The notion of the SAT originated in the decision by the United States military to allow university professors to test soldiers entering service for World War I.  Guinier provides some suggestive comments. 
“….Harvard professor and IQ-test advocate Robert Yerkes convinced army brass to allow him to evaluate nearly two million soldiers to identify top talent who could be promoted to the rank of officer.  The results were striking according to Yerkes, ‘The native-born scored higher than the foreign-born, less recent immigrants scored higher than more recent immigrants, and whites scored higher than Negroes.’  In 1923, Carl C. Brigham, a Princeton psychology professor and leading figure in the growing anti-immigration movement of the time, authored a treatise titled A Study of American Intelligence, in which he relied heavily on Yerkes’s findings to conclude that ‘American intelligence is declining, and will proceed with an accelerating rate as the racial admixture becomes more and more extensive’.”
Brigham would be selected to produce the first version of the SAT  (called the Scholastic Aptitude Test) which became available in 1926.  It would be a based on a modification of the IQ test produced by Yerkes.  Already, the separate concepts of intelligence and academic potential were being conflated.
The most serious concern is that an IQ test constructed by people who believed that intelligence was mostly genetically defined and a function of race would almost have to be designed so that it reproduced the beliefs of the designers.  At the time there was no data to match and the belief in intelligence as a measurable quantity was strong—how else to design such a test than to make it agree with preconceptions of who was intelligent?
Is it possible that the SAT was born under suspicious circumstances?  On that topic here is a comment by Nicholas Lemann in an article from The Atlantic The Great Sorting.
“The overall results of intelligence tests have always produced a kind of photograph of the existing class structure, in which the better-off economic and ethnic groups are found to be more intelligent and the worse-off are found to be less so.  In his book analyzing the results of the intelligence tests that the Army had given recruits during the First World War, for example, Carl Brigham, an early psychometrician and the father of ETS’s leading test, the Scholastic Aptitude Test, reported that the highest-scoring identifiable group was Princeton students — this at a time when, by today’s standards, Princeton was a den of carousing rich boys.”
“IQ tests have always heavily stressed reading comprehension and vocabulary items like analogies and antonyms, and so does the verbal section of the SAT. Back in the early days Carl Brigham published a scale for converting intelligence-test scores to SAT scores.”
A quick search finds those who hold the SAT in even less regard than Lani Guinier.  Consider this from Rich Gibson, a professor at San Diego State University: The Fascist Origins of the SAT Test.
“The genealogy of the SAT is far more authentic than the importance attached to the test’s scores. The SAT was born from the initial IQ tests, written by French psychologist Alfred Binet. In the US, Lewis Terman and Robert Yerkes promoted the IQ test and made it a popular instrument to determine who should be an officer, in a segregated military, during WWI. Their IQ test was designed to prove the genetic advantage of races they had already identified as superior. Terman and Yerkes were executives in the American Eugenics Society…..”
“The AES encouraged the linkage of scientifically quantified intelligence test scores, race, and ‘race hygiene,’ to purify the ‘race’ of ‘low grade’ and ‘degenerate’ groups. In other words, Terman, Yerkes, and many influential scientists in the US, believed they could define exactly what intelligence is. They thought that intelligence is race-based and can be tracked by genes, that intelligence is biologically determined. They believed that to allow those identified as having bad genes to propagate would be to threaten the entire society. Terman and Yerkes believed some people are born superior, and the inferior are a threat to the general welfare…..”
And then there is the story of the “father” of the SAT renouncing his own offspring.
“Carl C. Brigham worked with Yerkes on the Army IQ tests. Brigham wrote a book, ‘A Study of American Intelligence,’ clearly stating his belief in the biological relationship of race and intelligence, concluding that ‘race mixture,’ would pollute the gene bank, making the society dumber and weaker. Brigham then made a few inconsequential changes to the IQ test and called it the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Later, he renounced his own book, and the use of the SAT as a sorting tool for college admissions.”
Gibson is particularly irate about the use of what was perceived as an intelligence test to decide who should be condemned to fight and perhaps die in war, and who was too valuable to be placed at risk.
“….the SAT became a deadly weapon. The rationale of racism, sexism, and class privilege built into the test necessarily means, at its end, not just sterilization, but death. The SAT was used to secure draft deferments during the Korean and Vietnam wars, ensuring the wars were fought by working class youth, especially black youth. Notably, people who might not have done well on the SAT, the Vietnamese, defeated a power led by test-successes, educated at West Pointe.”
Nicholas Lemann provides a detailed history of how the SAT evolved from the first testing performed by Yerkes and others and evolved into the universal tool we have today in The Great Sorting.  The event that cemented the SAT’s role in our society was again provided by the US military.  During the cold war there was much concern that the Soviets were assiduously sweeping up their brightest children and providing them the best education and the best opportunities to contribute to Soviet objectives.  There was a widespread belief that we should be doing the same thing. 
In 1950 the Korean War began.  Truman, an initial believer in universal service, gave in to the pressure and on March 31, 1951 signed an executive order authorizing a test of college students that would grant deferments to those who received a high enough grade.  The SAT would be that test.  The notion of deciding who might live and who might die based on a measure of intelligence via an IQ test was definitely controversial, but the military, who thought of the SAT as an IQ test, was firmly in support.  The marketers of the SAT for such consumption were put in a delicate position and then, as now, always described the test as one of scholastic aptitude.
Lemann provides this summary on the issue.
“What is remarkable is how completely Hershey [head of Selective Service] believed that in the atomic age there was a need to keep potential scientists out of the line of fire — a need so pressing that it necessitated abandoning all previous American ideas about who should bear the burden of service in wartime. Once a principle is established, it quickly takes on the trappings of tradition, and also generates a constituency — in this case consisting of universities and the broad upper-middle class from which most of their students came. That may help explain why there was barely any controversy during the Vietnam War over the deferment of college students and graduate students — even though, unlike 1951, it was a time of dissent — or later over the abolition of the draft in favor of a voluntary military, which meant that for the college-going class there would be no obligation to serve at all.”
The SAT can’t be measuring intelligence as a fixed attribute of an individual because a student can take a class providing guidance on how to do better on the test.  Does that mean the preparatory work raised the student’s intelligence?  Intelligence must then be a variable which means a snapshot from a single test makes no sense.  If noncognitive factors, such as advice on test-taking strategies, can make a change in test score, then how can the test itself be considered a measure of scholastic aptitude?
So now we have ended up in a situation where the SAT may or may not measure intelligence, and it may or may not measure scholastic aptitude, but if you want to get into an elite school you better spend your life preparing to get a good grade on it.
Let us return to Lani Guinier.  She admits that the initial interest in testing had a decent social motive.  Harvard initially expressed interest in a test that would only be used to identify promising students from less-wealthy environments who would be eligible for scholarships that would allow them to flourish at Harvard and enrich it as an institution. 
“A battle that had begun with idealistic rhetoric succumbed to a Trojan horse: the SAT and a budding testocracy confirmed the existing order as inevitable, because the tests demonstrated that the elite possessed unassailable merit.”
The SAT is known to be an imperfect tool for predicting who will be the “best” college students, but it serves a more important purpose.  It provides the elite schools cover to go after the students they really prefer: students from rich white families.  The elite universities such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are really large corporations with a business model that demands income from wealthy alumni.  The best way to create wealthy alumni is to coddle the children of wealthy people.  These schools set the standard and other schools must follow.
To repeat: the SAT is a tool used to propagate an aristocracy and to establish a plutocracy.

You can learn a little about a lot of things or you can learn a lot about a very few things. Guess which is the most fun.


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