Equity in Assessing Potential

Carl Brigham could trace his ancestors back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony (late 1500’s). He came from a wealthy family. When World War I began, Carl was asked to administer the Army’s mental tests. He was also asked to conduct psychological tests.

When the war was over, Brigham adapted the Army’s intelligence test for admission to Princeton where he was on the faculty. Brigham became very influential when he published a study of American intelligence. His conclusions were controversial at the time and an embarrassment today. Yet his conclusions still impact equity today. He concluded that intelligence was genetic and Nordic races were more intelligent than Alpine (Eastern Europe), Mediterranean, and Negro races. He further argued that immigration was hurting America because it was lowering the intelligence level. All of these conclusions supported Brigham’s beliefs in eugenics that some races were superior to others.

He was asked by the College Board to develop a test of intelligence which could be used by universities as an admissions tool. The result was the SAT. He also pioneered the development of the Advanced Placement (AP) exams.

Today Brigham’s view on intelligence is widely disparaged as a racist perspective shaped by the nature of the testing instruments than genetic factors. Presidential historian, Gil Troy, has described Brigham as a “Pilgrim-pedigreed, eugenics-blinded bigot”. But the SAT he created still has incredible influence over who gets into select colleges and provides a phony justification for inequities.

When the COVID-19 pandemic made test taking a super-spreader of the virus, many of the nation’s universities made the SAT an optional factor in admissions. The impact of going test optional has been striking. Enrollments have become racially diverse at selective colleges with no noticeable impact on student achievement. Many colleges/universities have decided to remain test optional even though the impact of the pandemic has been reduced.

The impact of high-impact testing on equity has long been known but these tests have continued to exist. The tests have perpetuated the American caste system. It took the COVID-19 pandemic to embolden challenges to the need for the tests.

Just imagine how we might assess the potential for achievement in ways other than coloring in the right bubble on a test. Just imagine the power of someone believing in you rather than the scores you get on a test? Just imagine how much more equitable our society would be if we didn’t put an undue influence on the results of a four-hour event in our lives.

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“If my future were determined just by my performance on a standardized test, I wouldn’t be here. I guarantee that.” – Michelle Obama

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