The Racist Beginnings of Standardized Testing

As the U.S. absorbed millions of immigrants from Europe beginning in the 19th century, the day’s leading social scientists, many of them White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, were concerned by the infiltration of non-whites into the nation’s public schools.

At the time, psychologist Carl Brigham wrote that African-Americans were on the low end of the racial, ethnic, and/or cultural spectrum. Brigham had helped to develop aptitude tests for the U.S. Army during World War I and was influential in the development of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). At the time, he and other social scientists considered the SAT a new psychological test and a supplement to existing college board exams.

In the 21st century, the SAT and the ACT (American College Testing) are part of a wide range of tests students may face before reaching college. The College Board also offers SAT II tests, designed for individual subjects ranging from biology to geography.

The marathon four-hour Advanced Placement (AP) examinations—which some universities accept for students who want to opt out of introductory college-level classes—remain common: Nearly 350,000 took the U.S. history AP test in 2017, the most popular subject test offered.

There’s also the PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test) taken primarily by eleventh graders as preparation for the SAT and as an assessment for the National Merit Scholarships.

Biased Testing from the Start

Brigham’s Ph.D. dissertation, written in 1916, “Variable Factors in the Binet Tests,” analyzed the work of the French psychologist Alfred Binet, who developed intelligence tests as diagnostic tools to detect learning disabilities. The Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman relied on Binet’s work to produce today’s standard IQ test, the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Tests.

During World War I, standardized tests helped place 1.5 million soldiers in units segregated by race and by test scores. The tests were scientific yet they remained deeply biased, according to researchers and media reports.

In 1917, Terman and a group of colleagues were recruited by the American Psychological Association to help the Army develop group intelligence tests and a group intelligence scale. Army testing during World War I ignited the most rapid expansion of the school testing movement.

By 1918, there were more than 100 standardized tests, developed by different researchers to measure achievement in the principal elementary and secondary school subjects. The U.S. Bureau of Education reported in 1925 that intelligence and achievement tests were increasingly used to classify students at all levels.

The first SAT was administered in 1926 to more than 8,000 students, 40 percent of them female. The original test lasted 90 minutes and consisted of 315 questions focused on vocabulary and basic math.

“Unlike the college boards, the SAT is designed primarily to assess aptitude for learning rather than mastery of subjects already learned,” according to Erik Jacobsen, a New Jersey writer and math-physics teacher based at Newark Academy in Livingston, N.J. “For some college officials, an aptitude test, which is presumed to measure intelligence, is appealing since at this time (1926) intelligence and ethnic origin are thought to be connected, and therefore the results of such a test could be used to limit the admissions of particularly undesirable ethnicities.”

By 1930, multiple-choice tests were firmly entrenched in U.S. schools. The rapid spread of the SAT sparked debate along two lines. Some critics viewed the multiple-choice format as encouraging memorization and guessing. Others examined the content of the questions and reached the conclusion that the tests were racist.

Eventually, Brigham adapted the Army test for use in college admissions, and his work began to interest interested administrators at Harvard University. Starting in 1934, Harvard adopted the SAT to select scholarship recipients at the school. Many institutions of higher learning soon followed suit.

Since the beginning of standardized testing, students of color, particularly those from low-income families, have suffered the most from high-stakes testing in U.S. public schools.

Decades of research demonstrate that African-American, Latino, and Native American students, as well as students from some Asian groups, experience bias from standardized tests administered from early childhood through college.


By the 1950s and 1960s, top U.S. universities were talent-searching for the “brainy kids,” regardless of ethnicity, states Jerome Karabel in “The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.”

This dictum among universities to identify the brightest students as reflected by test scores did not bode well for students from communities of color, who were—as a result of widespread bias in testing—disproportionately failing state or local high school graduation exams, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, also known as FairTest.

The center addresses issues related to accuracy in student test taking and scoring, while working to eliminate racial, class, gender, and cultural barriers posed by standardized tests.

According to Fair Test research, on average, students of color score lower on college admissions tests, thus many capable youth are denied entrance or access to so-called “merit” scholarships, contributing to the huge racial gap in college enrollments and completion.

High stakes testing also causes additional damage to some students who are categorized as English language learners (ELLs). The tests are often inaccurate for ELLs, according to FairTest, leading to misplacement or retention. ELLs are, alongside students with disabilities, those least likely to pass graduation tests.

 African-Americans, especially males, are disproportionately placed or misplaced in special education, frequently based on test results. In effect, the use of high-stakes testing perpetuates racial inequality through the emotional and psychological power of the tests over the test takers, according to FairTest.

A Flawed Science

In his essay “The Racist Origins of the SAT,” Gil Troy calls Brigham a “Pilgrim-pedigreed, eugenics-blinded bigot.” Eugenics is often defined as the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics. It was developed by Francis Galton as a method of improving the human race. Only after the perversion of its doctrines by the Nazis in World War II was the theory dismissed.

 “All-American decency and idealism coexisted uncomfortably with these scientists’ equally American racism and closemindedness,” Troy writes.

Binet, Terman, and Brigham stood at the intersection of powerful intellectual, ideological, and political trends a century ago when the Age of Science and standardization began, according to Troy.

“In (those) consensus-seeking times, scientists became obsessed with deviations and handicaps, both physical and intellectual,” Troy states. “And many social scientists, misapplying Charles Darwin’s evolving evolutionary science, and eugenics’ pseudo-science, worried about maintaining white purity.”

Today, a reform movement is growing across the country to resist testing abuse and overuse, and to promote authentic assessment.

In some communities, according to FairTest, parents, students, education support professionals, and teachers are boycotting and opting out of tests. Also, demonstrations, rallies, forums and town halls focusing on testing reform have been organized


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