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Flawed From The Start
The History of the SAT

by Matt Pacenza

The SAT was born in the 1920s-the product of a growing desire by American educators, led by Harvard president James Bryant Conant, to open up their universities to the best students across the country.

The SAT's inventor wrote, "American intelligence is declining, and will proceed...as the racial admixture becomes more and more extensive"

America's elite universities-Eastern establishments such as Harvard, Yale and Princeton-selected students who were the sons of previous graduates or had attended New England's finest boarding schools. Conant envisioned a "natural aristocracy," taking the place of the old elite.

Lemann writes of Conant's ideas, "The new elite's essential quality, the factor that would make its power deserved where the old elite's had been merely inherited, would be brains."

Conant asked young Harvard dean Henry Chauncey to create a program that would allow Harvard to select the brightest students from across the country.

Chauncey soon met Princeton psychologist Carl Brigham, whom Lemann calls "an ardent eugenicist." Brigham concluded in his 1922 book, A Study of American Intelligence, that "American intelligence is declining, and will proceed with an accelerating rate as the racial admixture becomes more and more extensive."

Conant and Chauncey discovered that Brigham had already created a test to judge the academic potential of students, the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT. Brigham's earliest version of the SAT, similar to IQ tests he had previously developed for the Army, contains questions remarkably similar to today's.

Lemann writes, "A few samples from the original version convey the SAT's inimitable way of being simple and confusing at the same time, its tendency to induce uncontrollable, anxious second-guessing on the part of the taker."

Brigham had begun administering the SAT to test groups in 1926, and had concluded by 1933, when he met Chauncey, that his SAT reliably predicted academic success. Conant and Chauncey seized upon this conclusion, began administering the test to students who wished to win scholarships at Harvard, and convinced many of their Ivy League colleagues to follow suit.

Soon after Carl Brigham developed the test which Conant and Chauncey used, he began to question the wisdom of using the SAT to admit college students. In an unpublished manuscript which Lemann unearthed, Brigham wrote that the standardized testing movement was based on "one of the most glorious fallacies in the history of science, namely that the tests measured native intelligence purely and simply without regard to training or schooling. The test scores very definitely are a composite including schooling, family background, familiarity with English and everything else."

Lemann writes that Brigham's growing opposition to the early SAT prevented the test from gaining immediate acceptance, which was extremely irritating for Conant and Chauncey. However, "On January 24, 1943, at the age of fifty-two, he died. The roadblock was removed."

Chauncey became the first president of the Educational Testing Service in 1946, and under his skillful leadership, the SAT grew rapidly-by the 1950s, nearly 400 schools were requiring the test for admittance.

Today, 2.1 million American teenagers take the SAT, according to the ETS. The exam has 138 questions, all multiple choice except for several math graphs, divided into two sections-math and verbal, both scored on a scale of 200 to 800.

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