A Rouge Forum Broadside

The Fascist Origins of the SAT Test

Rich Gibson, San Diego State University, April 2001

The frantic rush to high-stakes standardized testing in the US costs one-half billion dollars annually in direct expenditures, probably double that in indirect costs. The chief fetish of the testing movement is the SAT, long known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test but now known, on the insistence of the test's owners, the Educational Testing Service, as just "The SAT." 

The SAT measures, above all else, class, sex, and race. (Fairtest, Roney). The SAT, like every similar test, is designed to divide people with razor sharp precision, to enumerate human value and to track people's futures under a veil of objective science. The SAT is a commodity itself, for sale to every student, school, and college in the world. It also commodifies people, attaching worth to individuals, but more pointedly drawing the lines of what can only be called class warfare. The impact of the SAT is to create the logic for a more deeply stratified society, divided primarily by issues of inherited income, sexism, and racism. The fraudulent claims of the SAT to promote a more equitable and meritorious society have been thoroughly revealed elsewhere. (Lemann, Fairtest, Roney). This analysis is a brief history of the SAT, unmasking the politics of the people who designed it, and those who promote the SAT and similar exams today .

The genealogy of the SAT is far more authentic than the importance attached to the test's scores. The SAT was born from the initial IQ tests, written by French psychologist Alfred Binet. In the US, Lewis Terman and Robert Yerkes promoted the IQ test and made it a popular instrument to determine who should be an officer, in a segregated military, during WWI . Their IQ test was designed to prove the genetic advantage of races they had already identified as superior. Terman and Yerkes were executives in the American Eugenics Society (Mehler).

The AES encouraged the linkage of scientifically quantified intelligence test scores, race, and "race hygiene,"to purify the "race" of "low grade" and "degenerate" groups. In other words, Terman, Yerkes, and many influential scientists in the US, believed they could define exactly what intelligence is. They thought that intelligence is race-based and can be tracked by genes, that intelligence is biologically determined. They believed that to allow those identified as having bad genes to propagate would be to threaten the entire society. Terman and Yerkes believed some people are born superior, and the inferior are a threat to the general welfare (Mehler, Kuhl).

In a book called,"Tomorrows Children," the leaders of the American Eugenics Society estimated around 2.5 million people in the US (enfeebled, epileptics, the institutionalized, the genetically inferior) deserved to be sterilized, whether their affliction could be traced to environmental issues or not. The AES also suggested that about another five million people should be segregated from society, based on their poor educational achievements. The AES declared that their project was racially-preventative medicine (Mehler, Kuhl).

Social practice and law in the US followed the demands of the AES. Indiana passed the first sterilization law in 1907. Thirty states followed suit. The laws were upheld by the Supreme Court. Thousands of people, mostly women, were sterilized, some voluntarily, most not. Leaders of the AES wrote a laudatory study of the success of the sterilization program in California where, by 1929, more than 6,000 people had been sterilized (Kuhl).

The AES did not limit its work to the US. They advanced their work around the world. In 1928, the Swiss passed the first sterilization law in Europe. Nazi German eugenicists relied heavily on research conducted by AES leaders in California in order to reach their conclusion: based on scientific research including intelligence testing, some lives are not worthy of life (Kuhl 44). There is a direct line from the IQ tests, to the American Eugenics Society, to forced sterilization, to Nazi extermination, a line that extends not only in theory, but also in history. Hitler said, "National Socialism is nothing but applied biology." At their trials at Nuremberg, Nazi scientists not only pointed to US research as a scientific basis for the death camps, but also rightly said that after the war US companies continued to try to recruit them.

Carl C. Brigham worked with Yerkes on the Army IQ tests. Brigham wrote a book, "A Study of American Intelligence," clearly stating his belief in the biological relationship of race and intelligence, concluding that "race mixture," would pollute the gene bank, making the society dumber and weaker. Brigham then made a few inconsequential changes to the IQ test and called it the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Later, he renounced his own book, and the use of the SAT as a sorting tool for college admissions. Here is an interchange on Carl Brigham from Nicholas Lemann, author of the popular book on the SAT, "The Big Test." (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/sats/interviews/lemann.html)

"You said Carl Brigham wrote the SAT. Was he a racist?

Brigham was a reformed racist, basically. You have to be careful about how you use words like racist,... That is, not applying the standards of the present to the past. So it must be said that in 1920 virtually every respectable person in the United States was an unacceptable racist by today's standards. Just as an example, remember, you could not find a man who believed that women should occupy positions of authority in 1920."
Lemann does not say that many women, black people, Jews, communists, anarchists, and millions of others were not racists, not sexists, not future fascists. Franz Boaz at Columbia University, working in the same historical period as Brigham, did all he could to fight the onslaught of fascist ideology. People fought back against the IQ test, against the SAT, and against fascism.

However, the SAT became a deadly weapon. The rationale of racism, sexism, and class privilege built into the test necessarily means, at its end, not just sterilization, but death. The SAT was used to secure draft deferments during the Korean and Vietnam wars, ensuring the wars were fought by working class youth, especially black youth. Notably, people who might not have done well on the SAT, the Vietnamese, defeated a power led by test-successes, educated at West Pointe. 

Nothing significant has changed about the results of the SAT scores, or the outlook of its authors, since it was first written. Underlying the SAT is an equation of lies: Intelligence can be defined and measured, race is a biological-scientific, not social, construct, some people are simply better and deserve more, some lives are not worthy of life. There is nothing untoward about pointing at today's respectable test-promoters, and saying: "Fascist." History is reason enough to say they can be beaten--and they should. The Rouge Forum is the organized body engaged in beating the fascists in schools. You can join the Rouge Forum and help to defeat the tests. 


Fairtest Web Site http://www.fairtest.org

Rich Gibson, Teaaching About the Holocaust in the Context of Comprehending Anti-Fascism:

Stefan Kuhl, The Nazi Connection, Eugenics, American Racism, and German Nationalism. New York, Oxford University Press 1994

Barry Mehler, "Eliminating the Inferior: American and Nazi SterilizationPrograms," Science for the People (Nov-Dec 1987) pp. 14-18. http://about.ferris.edu/ISAR/archives/mehler/eliminating.htm


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