SAT history embedded in elitism and racism

Eighty years after its inception, the SAT is getting another makeover. Recently, College Board President Gaston Caperton remolded the SAT into a knowledge-based test emphasizing the traditional three R’s – reading, writing and arithmetic. He calls the revision a “great balancing act.”

This testing overhaul is huge and so are the disparities tied to it. The new SAT has students and educators running in circles, so few stop to ponder just how startlingly undemocratic the process really is. In truth, the new SAT mocks the U.S. system of meritocracy and reinforces the system of privilege.

Most of us have grown weary of the already overcooked critique that SAT questions disadvantage poor, minority and female students. “Bite it,” we say. “It’s the United States. Anyone can succeed if they try hard enough.” Underlying this argument is a firm belief in meritocracy, a term coined by Michael Young in 1958. The idea is that a society’s leadership and rewards go to the capable rather than the privileged. In principle, the SAT is supposed to do exactly that – level the playing field so smart, poor, public school-educated students have a shot at Harvard. What could be more egalitarian and democratic that that?

Look no further than some dusty history to see just how undemocratic the SAT really is. From its very inception, the SAT was embroiled in elitism, sexism and racism. According to Steven J. Gould in his book “The Mismeasure of Man,” the SAT was based on Alfred Binet’s IQ test, the result of a long history of psychometrics in which European scientists from Paul Broca to Francis Galton measured skulls with an a priori conclusion that it would demonstrate the innate inferior intelligence of nonwhites and women.

Originally, Binet designed the test not to pick out the talented, but rather to identify schoolchildren who were slow learners. He was horrified when a Harvard professor, Robert Yerkes, a eugenicist who advocated segregating “high-grade morons” from the rest of society, shipped the test to the United States and administered it to the Army for the purpose of selecting intelligent officers.

In 1920, Carl Brigham, another eugenicist and vocal anti-Semite who believed U.S. intelligence was declining as racial mixtures were on the rise, became the head of the College Board and invented the SAT. His test was then picked up by Harvard Dean Henry Chauncey and Harvard President James Conant and used to identify talented young men for Ivy League scholarships. By 1943, Conant, who was appointed the head of Educational Testing Services, was administering the SAT to high school students around the country.

Now let’s count. How many women were involved in the evolution of the SAT? None. How many minorities? None. How many middle or lower class? None. How many young people? None. How many privileged elites? All.

Jump to 2003. In turning the SAT into a more “knowledge-based” test, Caperton and his crew took away the analogies section, replaced it with a 20-minute writing section and added a string of technical terminologies such as “pentameter” and “paradox.”

According to a recent Time magazine cover article, Caperton wants the SAT to be “a tool of social change besides social measurement.” The most stunning change he’s going to see is an exacerbation of the gap between the poor, the rich, the black and white, public- versus private-schooled children. The article reports “the black/white SAT score gap is somewhat smaller on the analogy section than on the test as a whole” because it tests general reasoning ability rather than what was learned in school.

Rather than measuring a student’s capabilities, the new SAT measures the student’s socioeconomic background because a student’s score is a direct reflection on his school district. Poorer schools cannot afford to restructure their curriculums to prep their students. In the same sense, charter schools and alternative education will suffer if they chose to teach Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” rather than J.D. Salinger, (the new writing test asks questions on works considered “great classics”).

Caperton calls this change “the great balancing act.” Considering that the SAT was born from the womb of the country’s elites and continues to be governed by them, it seems to me this is more like “a great disparity act.” How can it be democratic to have such a minority layer of society design the instrument that determines millions of youths’ futures?

Diana Fu’s column appears alternate Wednesdays. She welcomes comments at [email protected]