David Owen
David Owen

Fellowship Title:

Inventing The SAT

David Owen
November 14, 1984

Fellowship Year

“We must face a possibility of racial admixture here that is infinitely worse than that faced by any European country today, for we are incorporating the Negro into our racial stock, while all of Europe is comparatively free from this taint.”

From A Study of American Intelligence, by Carl Campbell Brigham

Carl Campbell Brigham was a young professor of psychology at Princeton. His book, published by the university’s own press in 1923, was a painstaking analysis of the Army Mental Tests, which Brigham had helped administer to new recruits at the time of America’s entry into World War I. Brigham’s work with soldiers had convinced him that Catholics, Greeks, Hungarians, Italians, Jews, Poles, Russians, Turks, and–especially–Negroes were innately less intelligent than people whose ancestors were born in countries that abounded in natural blonds. In his book he argued passionately for stricter immigration laws and, within America’s borders, for an end to the “infiltration of white blood into the Negro.”

“The really important steps are those looking toward the prevention of the continued propagation of defective strains in the present population,” he concluded, noting an “alarming” increase in the number of mulattos. “If all immigration were stopped now, the decline of American intelligence would still be inevitable. This is the problem which must be met, and our manner of meeting it will determine the future course of our national life.”

Congress passed a tough new immigration law in 1924, assuaging Brigham’s fears about the external contamination of American intellect. But the problem of eliminating “defective strains in the present population” remained. One solution, Brigham believed, was intelligence testing. By carefully sampling the mental power of the nation’s young people, it would be possible to identify and reward those citizens whose racial inheritance had granted them what Brigham believed to be a superior intellectual endowment.

Brigham’s book and his work at Princeton deeply impressed the College Entrance Examination Board, a small organization that had quietly been testing applicants to selective eastern colleges since 1900. In 1925, the Board hired Brigham to develop an intelligence test for use in college admissions. The examination he created was the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), the nation’s best-selling standardized admissions test, now published for the College Board by the Educational Testing Service. Today Brigham is little remembered, except by historians of mental measurement and by users of the Carl Campbell Brigham Library, the principal repository of enlightenment and learning at ETS.

The methodological forefather of the modern standardized-testing industry was Alfred Binet, a French psychologist who, in the early 1900’s, developed a procedure for estimating the general intelligence of children. Binet had been asked by his government to find a method for identifying students with learning disabilities that might be ameliorated through special education. He created a test in which children were asked to copy figures, give their names, count coins, and perform other tasks drawn, for the most part, from everyday life. To express the results of his tests, he created a numerical scale that represented a child’s intelligence as the difference between his mental age (as indicated by the test) and his actual age in years. This was the earliest version of what would later be known as the Intelligence Quotient, or IQ.

Binet was reluctant to extend his method beyond the narrow, diagnostic purpose for which he had devised it. He didn’t think his scale was an appropriate measure for “normal” students, and he thought the potential for abuse was enormous. Others, however, found his work highly suggestive. Henry Goddard, an American psychologist who ran a school for the “feeble-minded” in Vineland, New Jersey, translated Binet’s study into English in 1910. Goddard, who coined the term “moron,” was a eugenicist. He viewed his school as a sort of reproductive prison, a compound where people with inferior genes could be prevented from contaminating prime American breeding stock.

“It is perfectly clear,” he wrote in 1914, “that no feeble-minded person should ever be allowed to marry or to become a parent.” Goddard advocated using intelligence tests to identify people unsuited for human propagation. He also saw the tests as a scientific method for allocating the fruits of society. Speaking to students at Princeton University in 1919, he said, “Now the fact is, that workmen may have a 10 year intelligence while you have a 20. To demand for him such a home as you enjoy is as absurd as it would be to insist that every laborer should receive a graduate fellowship. How can there be such a thing as social equality with this wide range of mental capacity?”

Binet’s procedure was further revised and popularized by Lewis M. Terman, professor of psychology at Stanford University. The Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale, as it has been known ever since, remains a sturdy fixture on the American educational scene. Like Goddard, Terman saw IQ as a lever with which to move society. “It is safe to predict,” he wrote in 1916, “that in the near future intelligence tests will bring tens of thousands of…high-grade defectives under the surveillance and protection of society. This will ultimately result in curtailing the reproduction of feeble-mindedness and in the elimination of an enormous amount of crime, pauperism, and industrial inefficiency.”

Terman’s ambitions for intelligence testing didn’t end at prison walls and factory gates. He envisioned an entire society calibrated to the Stanford scale. “The time is probably not far distant,” he wrote, “when intelligence tests will become a recognized and widely used instrument for determining vocational fitness…”When thousands of children who have been tested by the Binet scale have been followed out into the industrial world, and their success in various occupations noted, we shall know fairly definitely…the minimum ‘intelligence quotient’ necessary for success in each leading occupation.”

There was something peculiarly American about this passion for measuring brain power. In a nation without dukes or princes, “native capacity” provided the basis for a sort of alternative aristocracy. Intelligence tests gave the nation’s privileged a scientific-sounding justification for the advantages they enjoyed. The wealthy lived in nice houses because they were smart; the poor were hungry because they were stupid. American society was just after all.

Even so, the cult of mental measurement might not have taken hold so firmly in this country had it not been for World War I. Before 1917, research on intelligence testing was diffuse and incomplete. But when the United States declared war, Robert M. Yerkes, a professor of psychology at Harvard, realized that the mobilization would provide an incomparable opportunity to test the intelligence of a large body of people. He received permission from the government and then, with the help of Terman, Goddard, and others, created the Army Mental Tests; Alpha, a written examination; and Beta, a pictorial test for illiterates. Results of the tests were to be used in assigning recruits to jobs within the army.

In April of 1917, Yerkes went to Canada to learn, as he later wrote, “what our neighbors were making of psychological principles and methods in their military activities.” In Canada he encountered a young psychologist attached to the Military Hospitals Commission. His name was Carl Campbell Brigham. Yerkes liked him immediately and persuaded him to come to the United States to take part in his bold new experiment. Brigham, who had found the Canadian army too small for his ambition, quickly agreed. Arriving in the United States the following fall, he rapidly became one of Yerkes’ most valuable assistants.

The Army Mental Tests were ludicrously flawed. Alpha Test 8, for example, contained the following multiple-choice questions:

2 Five hundred is played with rackets pins cards dice

3 The Percheron is a kind of goat horse cow sheep

7 Christie Mathewson is famous as a writer artist baseball player comedian

10 “There’s a reason” is an “ad” for a drin revolver flour cleanser

19 Crisco is a patent medicine disinfectant tooth-paste food product

29 The Brooklyn Nationals are called the Giants Orioles Superbas Indians

32 The number of a Kaffir’s legs is two four six eight

The Beta Tests–for men who either couldn’t read or couldn’t speak English–were also absurd. In Beta Test 1 recruits were given two minutes to trace paths through five mazes. Instructions were given in pantomime by an “experimenter” with the aid of a “demonstrator.” The experimenter stood beside a blackboard on a platform at the front of a noisy, crowded barracks. “The blackboard was turned so that two sample mazes…appeared,” Brigham wrote. “The experimenter traced through the first maze on the black-board, and then motioned the demonstrator to go ahead. The demonstrator traced through the maze with crayon very slowly. The experimenter then traced through the second maze and motioned the demonstrator to go ahead. The demonstrator in tracing this maze made a mistake by crossing the line at the end of a blind alley, was corrected by the experimenter with vigorous shakes of the head and ‘no-no,’ and made to re-trace his path back to where he could start right again. The demonstrator then traced through the rest of the maze with great semblance of haste, stopping momentarily at each ambiguous point only. The experimenter then motioned to the group to do the same thing on their examination blanks. The experimenter and the orderlies walked about the room, motioning to the men who were not working, and saying, ‘Do it, do it, hurry up, quick.’ “

Yerkes and Brigham rubbed their hands over the results of these tests and drew dark conclusions about the brain power of recent American immigrants. With so much new scientific data at hand, old misconceptions could be swept aside. “Our figures,” Brigham wrote, “…would rather tend to disprove the popular belief that the Jew is highly intelligent.” Measuring mental capacity was such an inebriating activity that some of Yerkes’ assistants found it difficult to return to ordinary academic life when the war was over. “It’s hard to come back to a milk diet,” said Prof. John J. Cross of Columbia, “after having lived on raw meat!”

In analyzing the Army data, Brigham–borrowing the classifications of Madison Grant, a eugenicist who had published a book called The Passing of the Great Race a few years before–detected four distinct racial strains in American society. At the principle were the Nordics, the blond-haired blue-eyed original settlers, and the group to which Brigham naturally assigned himself. At the other extreme was the American Negro. “Between the Nordic and the Negro,” Brigham wrote, “but closer to the Negro than to the Nordic, we find the Alpine and Mediterranean types.” The Mediterranean were particularly worrisome, Brigham said, because they had bred “conspicuously” with “the Amerind and the imported Negro.”

Brigham reserved most of his considerable scorn for blacks, whose arrival in America he described as “the most sinister development in the history of this continent.” In charts and graphs, and throughout his text, he repeatedly treated blacks (and also Jews) as being distinct from “Americans.” Indeed, he seems to have considered blacks to be members of a separate species, referring at one point to the “subspecies” of various races. He quoted very approvingly a passage from a recent book by Edwin G. Conklin, a colleague at Princeton, in which Conklin advocated “geographical isolation of races” in order to “prevent their interbreeding” but despaired that it might be only temporarily possible “to maintain the purity of the white race.”

In America, Brigham believed, the dilution of the master race had been a direct consequence of the abolition of slavery. “If we examine the figures showing the proportion of mulattos to a thousand blacks for each twenty year period from 1850 to 1910,” he wrote, “we find that in 1850 there were 126 mulattos to a thousand blacks, 136 in 1870, 179 in 1890 and 264 in 1910. This intermixture of white and Negro has been a natural result of the emancipation of the Negro and the breaking down of social barriers against him, mostly in the North and West.” Brigham did not advocate the reestablishment of human bondage. But he did believe that blacks should be barred from mixing freely in white society.

Carl Campbell Brigham was a prime New England specimen, a worthy inheritor of the Nordic intellectual legacy he sought to protect from genetic contamination. “On his mother’s side,” writes his biographer, Matthew T. Downey, in a celebratory volume published by ETS in 1961, “he was a descendant of William Brewster, the fourth signer of the Mayflower Compact, and of John Goss, who came from England with Governor John Winthrop in 1630.” His father’s family were Boston Brighams. Young Carl was born into great prosperity. Although he “inherited little of the traditional Yankee reticence,” according to Downey, “he did retain throughout his life the poise, bearing, and social graces derived from the environment of an old and esteemed New England family.”

Brigham followed his brother to Harvard in 1908 but found the place drab. Without telling his father, and almost before he had unpacked his trunk, he transferred to Princeton. Brigham was a “socially gifted young man” who “fitted well into the Princeton of the old days,” in the words of his biographer. Princeton, to be blunt, was a country club. Brigham had little patience for schoolwork. He spent his first two years on campus pursuing the life of privileged leisure for which his alma mater was justly renowned.

Brigham ignored academics until his junior year, when he discovered psychology. Binet’s work was just being translated into English. The field of mental measurement was emerging from its infancy, and Brigham found his calling. Both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student, he pursued a growing fascination with intelligence testing, impressing his professors with his diligence and his imagination.

The war, and Robert Yerkes, launched Brigham’s professional career. The army experiment also boosted the credibility of his chosen specialty. “Within two or three years after the war,” writes Downey, “intelligence testing had developed a new and wide popularity in secondary schools, colleges, and universities across the country.” Brigham returned to Princeton after the war and field-tested Army Alpha on undergraduates. Finding the exam too easy for college students, he created a more challenging version of his own.

“The tests have proved most useful in the office of the Supervisor of Freshman,” Brigham wrote in The Princeton Alumni Weekly in 1923. “For the first time we have been able to locate, with some certainty, the men of good intellectual ability, who are neglecting their studies and are not realizing their maximum capacities along academic lines. Many of these men, when shown that they had been getting low academic grades simply because they had neglected their work, and not because of stupidity, realized the fact and subsequently made a good record.” In 1925 Princeton made Brigham’s test a requirement for admission.

Intelligence tests were clearly the wave of the future. Several colleges were working to develop their own. Fearing that a flurry of independent activity might put it out of business, the College Board in 1924 asked Brigham, Yerkes (now at Yale), and a psychology professor at Dartmouth to advise it on how it might go about administering “psychological tests” of its own. Brigham quickly took command of the group. “With his intellectual stability and tremendous driving power,” wrote the Board’s official historian twenty-five years later, “he was by common consent made the spokesman of the Board whenever decisions had to be reached.” One year later, Brigham was officially appointed to direct the preparation and scoring of an intelligence test to be used in college admissions. The test he invented was the SAT.

Brigham was assisted by a committee of psychologists, but the SAT was his test. He adapted it directly from Army Alpha, incorporating what he had learned in his experiments with Princeton undergraduates.

There is an air of the antique about the exam’s first edition, but veteran ETS-test-takers would feel at home with the format. There are antonyms, analogies, sentence completion, even primitive reading-comprehension passages. One or two sections seem a bit odd. Brigham retained the Army testers’ penchant for esoteric information, quizzing students on brand names (Bon Ton, Congoleum, AtwaterKent), cuts of beef (round, rump, sirloin), and chicken breeds (Plymouth Rock, Leghorn, Wyandotte). He also included a peculiar section on “artificial language” in which students were given made-up vocabulary words and grammatical rules and then asked to parse sentences like “Ol thanto oteb” and “Ol pue bomem.” By and large, though, the first SAT bears a surprisingly strong family resemblance to its modern descendants.

The SAT very quickly became Brigham’s consuming passion. “The committee continued to meet irregularly for a year or two,” his biographer writes, “but the future development of the test was entirely in Brigham’s hands.” The College Board funded him liberally, enabling him to set up an office and laboratory at 20 Nassau Street in Princeton.

The arrangement was ideal for Brigham. It gave him the freedom he needed to cultivate his fertile imagination. An inveterate tinkerer, he mounted his file cabinet on wheels and attached the whole thing to his foot with a rope. When he wanted a file, he jerked his foot and the cabinet came skidding across the floor. When he was finished, he kicked it back across the room.

Brigham also hatched bold plans for the future of mental measurement. In his laboratory on Nassau Street, he invented “an automatic testing machine to add a new dimension to test data.” This device, according to his ETS biographer, was “a box-like affair with a projection screen and dials on the front, and a moving-picture camera, a film projector, and a pair of stop watches inside. At the flip of a switch the gears whirred, a test item flashed on the screen, and the first stop watch began. After the subject had dialed the answer, he flipped a second switch. The camera then recorded the time and the response on 35 mm. film, and the second stop watch timed the rest period until the next question…Pervading his laboratory was the warmth of Carl Brigham’s personality. One might find him, with the inevitable cigarette in his hand, sitting beside a table studying a pile of little wooden blocks, the material for a new spatial relations test. Making a last careful addition to the pile, he would look up and exclaim: “Testing is a cockeyed business!’ “

In recent years, the College Board and ETS have described Brigham’s virulent racism as a sort of irrelevant eccentricity. Brigham was asked to create the SAT, they say, because he was a testing expert, not because he was a bigot. His prejudices were unfortunate, etc., but, like William Shockley’s, they must be considered in isolation from his true work as a scientist.

Hatred and Vilification


But Brigham in the 1920s made no such distinction between his eugenicist views and his professional life. Indeed, he had built his academic reputation as a racist. A Study of American Intelligence was his only book. It was just a year old at the time he was appointed, and the Board had studied it carefully. Hatred and vilification drip from every section. The notion that the Board somehow missed this fact is simply not credible. In his preface, Robert Yerkes–whom the Board had also asked for advice on intelligence tests–said flatly, “[Brigham] presents not theories or opinions but facts. It behooves us to consider their reliability and meaning, for no one of us as a citizen can afford to ignore the menace of race deterioration or the evident relations of immigration to national progress and welfare.” There is no reason whatsoever to believe that the Board disagreed with Yerkes.

ETS and the College Board also say, when asked now about Brigham, that he eventually recanted his views. This is only partly true. In 1930–seven years after A Study of American Intelligence, four years after the first SAT–Brigham published an article in the Psychological Review called “Intelligence Tests of Immigrant Groups.” In that article, he sketched contemporary notions of the nature of intelligence and then described a study that had found flaws in the method the Army researchers had used to compare and combine scores on Alpha, Beta, and individual Binet tests. “As this method was used by the writer in his earlier analysis of the army tests as applied to samples of foreign born in the draft,” Brigham wrote, “that study with its entire hypothetical superstructure of racial differences collapses completely.” Later, in his final sentence. he wrote: “This review has summarized some of the more recent findings which show that comparative studies of various national and racial groups may not be made with existing tests, and which show, in particular, that one of the most pretentious of these comparative racial studies–the writer’s own–was without foundation.”

These are Brigham’s only references to his study. His ETS biographer made a virtue of this terseness by saying that Brigham “disposed of his own book in a few quick sentences.” Two quick sentences, to be precise. It’s impossible not to wonder how much he was really giving up. His “recantation” is a wholly passionless document. He mentions his book by name only in a footnote, and he doesn’t mention it at all until the end of his article. Nor does he say anything about blacks. He mentions the “foreign born” and, in the next to last paragraph, the unfairness of testing people in languages they don’t speak. But he is silent on the matter of his book’s most conspicuous prejudice. Nor does he dismiss the idea of racial and national differences in intelligence; his quarrel is only with “existing tests.” (Just two years before, in 1928, Brigham had published an article on the Army Mental Tests in Eugenical News, a journal that, in 1933, reprinted an item called “Text of the German Sterilization Statute,” by Adolf Hitler.)

Brigham has been blamed–most notably by Leon J. Kamin and Stephen J. Gould–for playing an instrumental role in passage of the heavily restrictive Immigration Act of 1924. Kamin and Gould even implicate Brigham in the deaths of European Jews during World War II: denied American visas in the 1930s as a result of Brigham’s proselytizing, they suggest, would-be emigrants were left to perish in the holocaust. More recently, in an article in the September, 1983, issue of the American Psychologist, Mark Snyderman and R. J. Herrnstein of Harvard have argued that the architects of the Immigration Act knew next to nothing about Brigham’s book and were guided by little more than their own unspeakable prejudices. After reviewing transcripts of debates and hearings, they concluded that the results of mental tests “were surely not crucial in the congressional deliberation, and, most likely, they were immaterial.”

Snyderman and Herrnstein seem persuasive on this point. Brigham would certainly have supported any effort to keep Jews and southern Europeans out of the United States. But Congress in the 1920s didn’t need pointy-headed psychologists to convince it that foreigners were muddying the American gene pool. In making this point, though, Snyderman and Herrnstein miss a larger one. Their intention is to brighten the tarnished image of the early testing movement, but their actual effect is quite different. What their article really proves is not that the testers were blameless on the question of race but that the “science” created by Brigham and others was driven by the same crude bigotry that led Congress to pass the Immigration Act. Brigham may not have influenced the lawmakers, but his motivation was identical to theirs. They were all part of the same ugly tide. Brigham’s remarkable ability to overlook the flaws in his method–flaws that Snyderman and Herrnstein ably document–was the unconscious product of his reprehensible point of view.

Snyderman and Herrnstein also argue that Brigham was something of a lone wolf in his profession and that his views were not widely shared by his fellow psychologists. A Study of American Intelligence had its supporters, they say, but it was also greeted by “a chorus of critics.” Once again, their intention is to distance “the intelligence testing community of the period” from individual racists associated with it. But if they are right, Brigham’s appointment by the College Board–an appointment the Board felt no need to justify at the time–is impossible to defend.

Brigham gradually retreated from his original ideas about the nature and distribution of intelligence. But his most enduring contributions to testing were made before his “recantation.” Brigham quite literally created the culture of standardized testing. He invented the SAT’s familiar 200-800 grading scale, along with many of the most important technical procedures still used by ETS and other publishers of standardized tests. The theoretical foundations of the SAT–and of numerous other descendants of Army Alpha–were laid down by a man who had blinded himself to reality in order to prove what he wanted to believe. The procedures were invented to demonstrate “scientifically” what science could not demonstrate.

To say that Brigham and the College Board created the SAT to keep blacks and recent immigrants out of college would be quite misleading, however. Simply put, Brigham and the Board did not think of either group (or of women, for that matter) as a threat to the Ivy League. The point of the SAT was to extend the Alpha standard to what Brigham and the Board viewed as mainstream American culture. Brigham intended his test to establish a “scale of brightness” on which the “native capacity” of the nation’s best and brightest young men could be measured and compared. The SAT would be the cornerstone of a new American social order–the aristocracy of aptitude, the meritocracy. The exclusion of blacks and other unfortunates was taken for granted.

©1985 David Owen

David Owen, formerly a senior writer for Harper’s Magazine, is investigating standardized testing and American education.

David Owen
David Owen