Last week, Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang called for a reduced emphasis on standardized testing. He particularly took a jab at the SAT, which has long been used to assess students’ readiness for collegiate studies.
“We came up with the SAT during World War II to determine who to keep from the frontlines,” Yang wrote in a tweet. “Now every year is wartime. We should deemphasize standardized tests and evaluate kids more holistically.”
We came up with the SAT during World War II to determine who to keep from the frontlines. Now every year is wartime. We should deemphasize standardized tests and evaluate kids more holistically.
— Andrew Yang🧢 (@AndrewYang) October 9, 2019
The test was not designed for wartime, however. The SAT, originally called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, was first administered by the College Board in 1926, about eight years after World War I and 13 years before World War II.
Still, it is true that the test evolved from a military purpose. Its first form was an intelligence quotient (IQ) test designed for U.S. Army recruits, which was modified to serve as a college admissions mechanism.
The invention of the IQ
The origin of the SAT can be traced back to the invention of the IQ in 1905, some five years after the formation of the College Board. Alfred Binet, a French psychologist, is known for creating the first IQ test, which sought to measure one’s intelligence and subsequently identify slow learners by determining their mental ages.
The College Board, set up by presidents of 12 leading U.S. universities, administered the first college admissions test in 1901, but they were far from the SAT we know today. This particular test was exclusively done in essays, covering mathematics, chemistry, physics, history and languages — English, French, German, Latin and Greek.
Below is a sample physics question from the said test:
A cylindric bar of uniform diameter and 1.5 meters long has a strong ring fastened to each end and another at a distance of one meter from one end. Show by three drawings how this rod may be used as a lever with each ring in turn serving as a fulcrum. What weight in each case (the weight of the bar itself being neglected) applied to one remaining ring will balance 25 kilograms at the other?
The First SATs
During World War I, Robert Yerkes, a member of the emerging IQ testing movement, persuaded the U.S. Army to allow him to test recruits for intelligence. This test was the Army Alpha, the first mass-administered IQ test.
Yerkes had an assistant named Carl Brigham, who taught at Princeton University. Following the war, Brigham adapted the Army Alpha as a test for college admissions, essentially by making it more difficult.
Prepared by a committee headed by Brigham, the first Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) was administered experimentally to 8,040 students in 353 locations on June 23, 1926.
The test, which forced examinees to answer 315 questions in a little over 90 minutes, contained nine sections, namely: (1) definitions, (2) arithmetical problems, (3) classification, (4) artificial language, (5) antonyms, (6) number series, (7) analogies, (8) logical inference and (9) paragraph reading.
Since then, the SAT underwent a series of changes. In the 1928 and 1929 tests, for instance, math was eliminated entirely, a move that carried on in the 1936 to 1941 tests.
In 1930, the SAT was split into math and verbal sections for the first time. The math section contained 100 free response questions to be answered in 80 minutes, while the verbal section narrowed down subtests to antonyms, double definitions and paragraph reading.
After seven years of absence, math was reintroduced into the SAT in 1942. This time, it consisted of multiple-choice questions.
SATs in World War II
The year 1942 not only marked the return of math in the SAT, but also the middle of World War II (1939 to 1945). At this point, all pre-existing College Board examinations were abolished, making the SAT the sole test for college applicants.
In January 1943, Brigham died at the age of 52. Three months later, a variation of the SAT known as the Army-Navy College Qualifying Test was distributed to at least 316,000 high school seniors, proving that standardized multiple-choice tests could be mass-produced.
The test was a qualifying exam for the (1) Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) and (2) V-12 Navy College Training Program, which was announced on Dec. 12, 1942, as a means to control enrollment declines in colleges and universities due to the ongoing war. The V-12 program, which paid tuition, allowed students to attend classes with civilians and participate in athletics, unlike the ASTP.
The ASTP sought to turn out more than 200,000 technically-trained personnel in fields such as engineering, medicine and foreign languages. On the other hand, V-12 sought to produce officers for both the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, in excess of the number already turned out by the U.S. Naval Academy and U.S. Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School.
While the ASTP and V-12 programs had different purposes, both aimed to meet the demands of World War II. A 1944 report specifically stated that the Army-Navy College Qualifying Test sought men for both programs.
“To be eligible, a person must have attained his 17th birthday by the first of July and be a high school graduate; but he must be no older than 22. This test is for men not now in any reserve or other branch of the armed services,” the report stated.
The SAT Today
The SAT may no longer directly contribute to military demands, but whether it is appropriate and necessary to determine “readiness” for college — and life — remains a question, as Yang suggests.
“I had very little going for me as a kid except for the fact that I had demanding parents and was very good at filling out bubbles on standardized tests,” Andrew Yang wrote in an op-ed for Business Insider in 2018.
“I went to the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University because I did well on the SAT. I went to Exeter because I did well on the SAT. I got into Stanford and Brown because I did well on the SAT. I went to law school at Columbia because I did well on the LSAT, which led directly to a six-figure job. I even became the CEO of an education company in part because I did well on the GMAT.”
Yang recalled others who studied much harder than he did but didn’t do well. He also pointed out that scoring well on such tests only means one is good at taking them.
“As someone who was very good at standardized tests growing up, I think they are a terrible measurement of anything other than whether you are good at the test. Certainly have nothing to do with human worth, character or virtue,” he wrote in a tweet.
As someone who was very good at standardized tests growing up I think they are a terrible measurement of anything other than whether you are good at the test. Certainly have nothing to do with human worth, character or virtue.
— Andrew Yang🧢 (@AndrewYang) March 20, 2019
Feature Image via Getty