Tuesday, June 17, 2014

June 17 - The Ironic Origins of the SAT (with Comment)

The national office of the College Board, founded in
1900. The office is at 45 Columbus Avenue, NYC.
The following was posted this morning by Garrison Keillor on Writer's Almanac:
It was on this day in 1901 that the first standardized tests were administered by the College Board. Before standardized tests, many universities had their own college entrance exams, and prospective students were required to come to campus for a week or more to take exams. 
Since each college's exam demanded a different set of knowledge, high schools offered separate instruction for students based on which colleges they hoped to attend. Some colleges accepted applicants based on how well previous graduates of the same high school were doing at the college. Other colleges sent faculty to visit high schools, and if the high school met their criteria, then they would admit any graduate of that school. 
It was a confusing system, and as more Americans began to attend college, it was no longer practical. Between 1890 and 1924, the number of college students grew five times faster than the growth of the general population. In 1885, the principal of a prestigious boarding school wrote to the National Education Association asking them to reform the system. It took 15 years of discussion, committees, and arguments, but the College Board was finally formed in 1900. Its founders hoped to simplify curricula at the high schools, and make a college education accessible to a wider pool of applicants.  
Beginning today and throughout this week in 1901, the first standardized college entrance exams were given to 973 students at 67 locations (plus two more in Europe). More than a third of the students were from New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Students were tested in English, French, German, Latin, Greek, history, mathematics, chemistry, and physics. The tests were essays, not multiple choice, read by a team of experts in each subject. The experts met at tables in the library of Columbia University, and the essays were graded as Excellent, Good, Doubtful, Poor, or Very Poor. 
Columbia was one of the main forces behind the conversion to standardized testing — of the 973 applicants, 758 were applying to either Columbia or its affiliate Barnard. For the next couple of decades, the tests were in use but were not widely accepted. Only a small fraction of incoming freshmen took standardized tests, and there were only 10 colleges that admitted all of their students based on the test — some colleges looked at the test, but also provided their own entrance exams, and happily admitted students of any qualifications if their parents were donors. 
The early tests were considered "achievement" tests because they tested for students' proficiency in certain subjects. A couple of decades later, the College Board switched to "aptitude" tests, intended to measure intelligence. There were mixed motives for this change. On the surface, it made college admittance more fair and accessible to students whose high schools didn't teach ancient Greek or prepare students specifically for college. 
But the biggest proponents of intelligence testing were college officials who were concerned about the rapid influx of immigrants — especially Eastern European Jews — to their student body. A Columbia University dean worried that the high numbers of recent immigrants and their children would make the school "socially uninviting to students who come from homes of refinement," and its president described the 1917 freshman class as "depressing in the extreme," lamenting the absence of "boys of old American stock." 
These college officials believed that immigrants had less innate intelligence than old-blooded Americans, and hoped that they would score lower on aptitude tests, which would give the schools an excuse to admit fewer of them. In 1925, the College Board began to use a new, multiple-choice test, designed by a Princeton psychology professor named Carl Brigham, who had modeled it on his work with Army intelligence tests. This new test was known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test. The first SAT was taken in 1926. These days, more than 1.6 million students take the SAT each year.

When I applied in 1955 for transfer to an American high school from one in England, I was required to take the high-school equivalent of the SAT. No surprisingly, I was the only person at my school taking it. My examiner, Fr. Timothy Horner (who subsequently came to the United States and headed up St. Louis Priory), relished the instructions, which were intended for huge halls of examinees. "All students will now pick up their pencils in their right hand. At the signal, all students will break the seal on the exam booklet and will begin answering the questions."

Garrison Keillor doesn't say it, but the irony is that the SAT tests showed that the undesired immigrants were highly intelligent. The alumni-children legacy preference continued, but I am told that official records show that it was not available for alumni children applying for scholarships. The idea seems to have been that if Harvard's continuance is partly dependent on wealthy donors, those that cannot afford to send their children without financial aid are not part of the relevant population.

Today, the highly intelligent applicants for whom an alleged quota exists at top universities are reportedly (see my letter of 2012) those whose parents immigrated from Korea, or those applying directly from Korea. In Korea, educational achievement is highly valued, and Harvard is a top brand.