As our country grapples with its heritage of white supremacy, educators need look no further than the SAT for an example of how systemic racism perpetuates itself.
The SAT was created as an intelligence test, part of a mania for such testing in the early 1900s spurred by an unprecedented wave of nonwhite immigration. The nation’s white Anglo-Saxon Protestant leaders wanted a way to sort the new arrivals. Some of the immigrants, they assumed, were good people. They would use intelligence tests to distinguish these from the feeble-minded, the imbeciles, etc. In 1923, Carl Brigham of Princeton University published A Study of American Intelligence, in which he wrote that testing showed the superiority of “the Nordic race group” and warned of the “promiscuous intermingling” of these new immigrants in the American gene pool. Shortly after the book’s publication, the College Board commissioned him to lead development of the SAT, which debuted in 1926.
The outlines of this history are probably familiar, but most people convince themselves that what was racist long ago is no problem today. Systemic racism works that way: a loudly racist beginning is often followed by muting, obfuscation and normalization. History is changed. The Civil War? Not really about slavery; it was a clash of economic systems. The Black codes of the post-Civil War era were nakedly racist, but they eventually became vagrancy laws, which were simply an effort to impose law and order, which became the core of the Southern strategy, and which also informed the Clinton administration’s 1994 crime bill. Racist impulses normalized. And sometimes, the racism is so concealed that people of good will do not recognize its presence.
The strange career of the SAT has followed a similar trajectory. With non-northwest European immigration virtually halted by an act of Congress in 1924, the era of intellectual racism -- called “eugenics” at the time -- quickly became an embarrassing memory (and then radioactive after the Nazis). The College Board still used SAT to sift the unwashed masses for the few who were worthy of joining the WASP elite, but it now construed the mission as finding the underprivileged. That nimble pivot bought the test 60 more years of legitimacy, until modern science proved that it is impossible to rank intelligence on a 1600 scale. Diversity, it turns out, is at war with the SAT, and vice versa.
The College Board officially raised the white flag on SAT-as-an-intelligence-test in 1993, when it abandoned Scholastic Aptitude Test as the full name. “Aptitude” had connoted inborn ability, but that idea was now taboo because it meant that wealthy whites were more intelligent than everyone else. The rationale for SAT’s existence -- that it could identify academic potential regardless of school context -- had been destroyed. The College Board conceded that scores do reflect differences in school context, yet it could not reasonably claim that SAT measures academic achievement. Damage control has continued in fits and starts: recentering, the New SAT, the new New SAT, the required essay, the optional essay, the “adversity score.” Each new iteration of the test is hustled out to fix the problems of the previous one, problems that the College Board had previously denied were problems.
The only strategy left for the spin mavens at the College Board is to hope that we forget. Forget Carl Brigham. Forget scholastic aptitude. Forget what they said 20 years ago or last year. None of that is relevant. They’ve fixed it now.
Today, the SAT is emblematic of higher education’s failure to keep up with the times -- perpetuated by a mix of historical amnesia, unexamined traditionalism, failure to diversify senior faculty, inability to distinguish memorization from critical thinking and the preoccupation at elite institutions with maintaining their status. Just the stuff that systemic racism thrives on. While the world changes at warp speed, college looks much like it did 50 years ago, especially at research universities and especially in the first year. Most professors, as they have for generations, lecture to passive audiences and administer tests emphasizing recall of information. When was the last time a typical professor attended a faculty meeting devoted to teaching methods? Or consulted with colleagues about how to test what students know and can do? Researchers pursuing the correlation between SAT scores and first-year college grades might better focus on the shared flaws of SAT and the first year of college.
For a deep dive into colleges’ resistance to change, I consulted the recent work of Derek Bok, longtime president of Harvard University. As a coda to his career at the pinnacle of higher education, Bok turned his attention to Our Underachieving Colleges (2006, 2009) and The Struggle to Reform Our Colleges (2017). The former book, in particular, chronicles in painstaking detail colleges’ lack of institutional incentives to improve teaching, and their focus on course requirements to the neglect of how those courses are taught. With diplomacy befitting a former president, Bok writes that “neither faculties nor their deans and presidents feel especially pressed to search continuously for new and better ways of educating their students.”
Bok notes that “most college examinations call for short answers or multiple-choice responses and test recall of information rather than analytical skills,” citing one study in 40 research universities, which found that twice as many test questions “merely asked for recall of information” than required “critical thinking.”
Bok found that professors do not pay attention to the scholarship of recent decades that could improve both teaching and testing. A key paragraph: “The indifference to educational research is probably rooted in the same instincts for self-protection that resist collective debates about teaching. Studies of this kind can result in findings that call for wholesale reforms of familiar methods of teaching and examining students. Rather than risk such unsettling changes, better to ignore the research entirely, or, if others bring it up, dismiss it as inappropriate or unreliable. Shielded in this way, even professors who devote their lives to research continue to ignore empirical work on teaching and learning when they prepare their own courses or meet with colleagues to review their educational programs.”
America’s professors have amply demonstrated their lack of interest in educational research. Yet many of them support keeping the SAT/ACT requirement for admission, a front-burner issue after the University of California’s recent decision to drop it. College professors want to teach their classes their way, without interference from others. They are guided not by educational research, but by their lived experience. Their experience generally includes doing well on the SAT. Their fears about dropping the SAT/ACT requirement include lowering standards, letting in unqualified students and changing the nature of their classrooms. Listen carefully for the echoes of Carl Brigham.
Nearly 20 years after the first time UC announced that it would drop its SAT/ACT requirement, the Board of Regents finally said enough is enough. The faculty, suddenly interested in educational research, recommended further study. We have not heard the last of this debate, that much is for sure.