Setting The Standard

An exploration of standardized testing.

 Content Warning: This article contains heavy discussions of racism, eugenics, and classism.

“According to all evidence available, then, American intelligence is declining, and will proceed with an accelerating rate as the racial admixture becomes more and more extensive.” Meet Carl Brigham, the racist, eugenicist, writer of this quote and most notably the creator of the Scholastic Aptitude and Advanced Placement Tests — more commonly known as the SAT and AP tests. This quote comes from his 1923 book A Study Of American Intelligence, published just three years before he would be commissioned by the College Board to develop and release these staples of the college admissions process.

Carl Campbell Brigham was born in Marlborough, Massachusetts on May 4th 1890. After receiving his degree in psychology from Princeton University, at the peak of World War One (when the Eugenics movement was reaching its peak in support), he went on to administer IQ tests to those wishing to join the army. When the topic of standardized testing is brought up, tests like the SAT, ACT, or SBA often are what come to mind. IQ testing, which is no longer mandated in schools, was a staple of life in American society. Not only was it required to take and pass one to join the army, but children were subjected to them, allegedly in order to determine how they would be assigned work in class. His experience with the army and access to recently declassified results of these IQ tests would inspire him to conduct various studies on what he thought it meant to be intelligent in society and whether this was on the rise or in decline. So impressed with the research he conducted, the College Board reached out to commission him and a team of developers to set the standard for how Americans get into college. The important thing to note about these studies, which carried on not only through the rest of the tests he was commissioned to make but even to how the test is given today, is that these things are not objective. These tests were aimed at white, wealthy, men and so that is who statistically did well on them.

Thanks to this, the Eugenics movement was able to add fuel to their fire, and reached an all-time peak of support. This was not something that was only pushed by conservatives, people like Margaret Sanger, a founder of Planned Parenthood, incorporated many aspects of the eugenics movement (and its involvement in standardized testing) into her mission of legalizing birth control and abortion. She pushed for poor women to have access to birth control, appealing  to the eugenicists by telling them it would help them meet their goal. Sanger was also a noteworthy supporter of forced sterilization as a response to low scores on  IQ tests.

But how does this affect students taking the tests today? While efforts have been made by College Board and Seattle Public Schools to increase accessibility and to undo the elitism that is so ingrained in the college admissions process, some at school feel like it just isn’t enough. “When these tests are developed, they are vetted, they do look for racial social equity and their questions. Are they 100% accurate and infallible? No, there are still issues and questions about that,” Carr said. As an additional effort to increase accessibility, the in-school SAT is part of the school district’s efforts to ensure that everyone can have access to the test and therefore access to college. Regina Carr is a part of the test development team at Garfield High School. “So traditionally, the SAT and a PSAT are offered once a year, right for students to take and there was some discussion about possibly offering it twice,” Carr said. The student body had been informed about this scheduled test and there was much displeasure at the lack of explanation for why it was seemingly canceled. Carr said,. “I don’t think it was ever officially scheduled [as much as it was] tentatively scheduled so I don’t know if I would really say it was called off… It was not confirmed or completed,” Carr said.  Essentially, because of the fact that it was never officially scheduled, it was also by that logic never technically canceled.

While more and more colleges are realizing that perhaps the standard that they are setting is is as clear as their origins and thus requiring these standardized tests less and less, it is notable that colleges like Brown are only suspending their requirement of the tests for this next school year, next year the SAT is back as a total requirement to be considered at all. As it stands, students who were looking forward to having another opportunity to get their SAT done can look to College Board’s website to find prices and testing locations near you. To find inexpensive resources and test prep materials, a library near you will almost certainly have resources like prep books, internet access, and tutoring.