What You Should Know about the SAT, But Were Afraid to Ask

Robert Yerkes had a problem. It was the early 1910s and his beloved field of psychology was stuck. Psychology was considered a "soft" science and Yerkes wanted to show that this field was rigorous. To give psychology more legitimacy and gravitas as a "hard" science, Yerkes had to demonstrate that psychology had a quantitative element. He needed data and lots of it.

Yerkes was a frustrated man. He spent part of his career at Harvard and then Yale, but could not get much traction in moving up in the ranks. He is most famous for his work on primates and his strength as a great organizer of people. He was an affable leader and served as president of the American Psychology Association (APA) in 1917. In this role he could break psychology from its "soft" science stigma.

World War I would provide his opportunity. The army had 1.75 million recruits and needed to evaluate them. Yerkes had a multiple-choice apparatus that he used in his animal studies that he could apply to these recruits. Yerkes offered to the military officials that mental tests would help win the war by giving them a reliable way to evaluate their soldiers. The Army's goal was to improve the efficiency in evaluating enlisted men by moving away from time-consuming written and oral examinations, to these easy-to-evaluate tests. Yerkes motives was to move his profession from an art to a science with real data from a massive sample size of men.

The plan was to devise three tests. One test was used to identify literate recruits (Army Alpha) and another to identify illiterate ones (Army Beta). Those who fail both of those tests were ranked as privates and tested for their ability to be resourceful or to understand written instructions. Underlying these tests was a pathway to identify feeble-mindedness in "unwanted" groups (commonly associated to race or country of origin), and a linkage to the eugenics movement. (Stephen Jay Gould spells out the dark past of these tests in his aptly titled book, The Mismeasure of Man.) There were less than altruistic motives for these tests, and it is hard to say that Yerkes was blind to them.

After the recruits were tested, the army did not make much use of the results. But that did not concern Yerkes. He had his data and the legitimacy he craved.

Soon, Yerkes got a stream of requests from commercial industries and educational institutions. His tests would rank everyone. One of Yerkes' followers, C. C. Bringham was secretary of the College Entrance Examination Board and developed the multiple-choice Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) based on the army's model. The SAT became the standard since 1926. Yerkes' brainchild became Frankenstein.

Given its history, the SAT not only needs a revision but a re-evaluation. These tests were never designed to improve pedagogy; they were designed to promote psychology and bad science. Perhaps we should consider if this is a path we want to continue to take. Think about it. How we decide to move ahead will be our biggest test.

Ainissa Ramirez, Ph.D. is a scientist and co-author of Newton's Football: The Science Behind America's Game. She resides in New Haven, CT and is writing a book on the social history of materials science.