Home > Uncategorized > Eugenics Led to IQ tests, SATs and Standardized Testing: Sorting an Selecting Persists

Eugenics Led to IQ tests, SATs and Standardized Testing: Sorting an Selecting Persists

May 26, 2019

I just read Linda Gordon’s review of Daniel Okrent’s The Guarded Gate, whose subtitle is: Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians and Other European Immigrants Out of America. The review describes the eugenics movement that swept our country in the late 19th and early 20th century, a movement that was purportedly based on hard science that provided tools to objectively identify those nationalities who deserved to be allowed into our country and those who should be barred from entry. In describing the basis for the eugenics movement, Ms. Gordon writes:

Misunderstanding what was and wasn’t genetic led to enthusiasm for eugenics, the science of human breeding. Not all eugenics was discriminatory. In the late 19th century progressive reformers used eugenic arguments for improving public health through, for example, the promotion of healthy pregnancies. But by the 1920s eugenicists were ranking ethnic groups as superior or inferior, and their work was considered state-of-the-art science, taught in standard biology textbooks…

Supremely confident of their objectivity, nativist leaders sought to put eugenics into practice. Willet Hays — a plant breeder — proposed that each American be assigned an 11-digit “number name,” a score of their genetic lineage, to guarantee their “mating with those of equal general excellence.” Okrent reproduces a sample report on an individual’s physical, mental and temperamental qualities. Eugenicists persuaded the Public Health Service to offer certificates of eugenic suitability for marriage.

Ms. Gordon makes no mention of the most long-lasting outcome of the eugenics movement: standardized testing. As Natalie Frank writes in an Owlcation essay, the originator of the IQ test, French psychologist Albert Binet, intended the test to be used to identify children who needed special attention. Moreover, he cautioned against using the tests to rank the general population. Ms. Gordon writes:

Binet firmly declared that his test was never intended as, “a general device for ranking all pupils according to mental worth” (Binet, 1916). A single score, he emphasized, could not quantify intelligence. He went on to state that it would be a serious mistake to use what had come to be referred to as an IQ score as a definitive indication of a child’s intelligence.

Binet’s fear was that the IQ score would condemn children to a permanent assumption of stupidity, limiting their education and ability to support themselves.Overall, Binet stressed that intelligence progressed at variable rates, was malleable not fixed, could be altered by the environment, and was only able to be compared among children of the same background and education(Binet & Simon, 1916)

Unfortunately, it appears that on its way across the ocean Binet’s intelligence theory and warnings regarding interpretation got lost somewhere in the translation. It became clear that his concerns were well placed as some did misuse his scale for purposes he had never intended. The services for those children struggling to learn that he hoped would be employed would not materialize for several generations.

As noted in previous posts, the individual who emphasized the value of IQ scores and standardized test scores in general was Lewis Terman, whose ideas came to dominate schooling in our country:

Terman defined the primary benefits of this test, now called the Stanford Binet, as “curtailing the reproduction of feeble-mindedness and in the elimination of an enormous amount of crime, pauperism, and industrial inefficiency” (White, 2000). Now that the concept of eugenics had been bestowed with scientific merit through the endorsement of a respected Stanford Professor, the movement began to grow exponentially.

And the line from IQ tests to SAT tests to standardized achievement testing is linear and clear. Lewis Terman’s associate, Robert Yerkes, developed a standardized test used to sort military conscripts and one if his assistants, Princeton psychologist, Carl Brigham, designed the test that became the SAT. Like the IQ, the SAT originally had a narrow purpose: it was designed to identify “...academically gifted boys who did not come from the Eastern boarding schools” to attend Harvard. James Conant, Harvard’s President at the time, saw the SAT as a good proxy for “…pure intelligence, regardless of the quality of the taker’s high school education.”

The first standardized tests used at the State level was designed by Lewis Terman and two of his assistants.  Their initial purpose was “...to test the accomplishments of school children in grades two through eight” but like other tests they assumed a broader purpose, especially when those calling for accountability emerged in the 1980s.

We now live in an era where the prevalence of data collected on each individual student combined with genome research make it possible to accomplish the kinds of coding plant breeder Willet Hays envisioned… a world where every child could be assigned an 11 digit code that would score their genetic lineage and make it possible to achieve the ultimate sorting-and-selecting the efficiency experts sought in the early 1920s. A chilling prospect… but one that seems increasingly plausible given our obsession with tests as a means of determining “merit”.


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