The Origins of the SAT

In this video by BuzzFeed, we learn that the SAT was created in 1920 by a eugenicist named Carl Brigham. Brigham believed that some races had traits that were superior to those of other races. He made the SAT to reinforce the belief that Jewish people, mediterranean people, and people of color were less intelligent than white people. One of the people being interviewed in the video says, “Science: being used to back up racism since forever,” which, despite her ironic tone, is a claim that we know is very real from taking the class. Additionally, we can see how the intersections of race and class come into play in the SAT’s effort to perpetuate intersectional systems of oppression. The video includes a graph of the average SAT scores in 2013 based upon the household income of the students who took it. From the graph, it is clear that students that come from households with lower incomes scored much lower than those that come from households with higher incomes, which shows how not only race, but also class impacts the performance on these tests due to the accessibility to test prep material.

This video is important in light of the discussions we have been having in class because it expands our ideas of what a living laboratory is. It makes us realize that we, as students, can be participating in living laboratories, whether we are cognizant of it or not. In a sense, we have had to “pass through” living laboratories in order to get here to Princeton by taking tests such as the SAT. In a sense, we were part of the very experiment that Brigham has created, and, depending upon our intersecting identities, we were either proving him right or wrong. This shows how living laboratories can take on various forms and how they can persist over long periods of time.

Some personal questions that I have come up with after watching the video are the following: Before taking tests like the SAT, were any of you cognizant of the ways in which you were disadvantaged due to the identities that you possessed? Were you cognizant of the other types of people taking the test when you took it? When I took the SAT in high school, I quickly noticed that I was one of the few public schoolers there. Also, I noticed that most of the test takers were Korean, majority of whose population is upper middle class in Guam. Finally, do you believe that, if students were exposed to videos like these before they took these tests, would perform differently, knowing that they were made in order to prove that some people were smarter than others because of who they are and where they come from?

3 thoughts on “The Origins of the SAT”

  1. Personally, I have always found the SAT to be a test of social advantage. I noticed in high school that the majority of the student population at my school who had done exceptionally well on the SAT tended to have had access to tutors and the corresponding CollegeBoard study books whereas others from lower socioeconomic households did not. What is interesting to me is the fact that the SAT is still being used as a benchmark to determine an individual’s intelligence EVEN THOUGH the test’s roots itself are based off of racist and antisemitic predispositions. This goes off of a question that I remember having at the beginning of the semester which was whether studies and research that were the products of scientific racism are still being utilized presently in this day and age.

  2. During my high school career, I also noticed that the SAT and its rank of success was essentially based on how much money you had to pay for a tutor, or an elite preparatory school. Growing up in NYC, I found that the administration and teachers themselves spoke about the exam in a way that disqualified its representation of intelligence, saying things like “the SAT doesn’t determine your how smart you are,” but race and socioeconomic factors were never mentioned in that disqualification. I think that students will alter the way they view the SAT and the college admission process after watching this video, but I don’t think, nor can I say, that they will necessary take a course of action either for or against the system. That being said, I do know that despite the course of action one takes after finding out that this system is inherently against them, it’s a difficult road to travel.

  3. Going into the test, I was very much aware that it was not created for students like myself who had to learn English as a second language in school, as opposed to at home. It’s interesting to finally see how the SAT was created specifically to uphold the belief that certain groups of people are less intelligent than white folk. I wonder if the origins of the SAT itself played any role in the College Board’s decision to completely remake the SAT for 2016. I remember certain representatives from the College Board saying that one of the main reasons they decided to change the exam was because they saw how severely disadvantaged students from certain socioeconomic backgrounds were when taking the exam. Still, even with the changes there is still more to be done. I feel like the College Board would do good by acknowledging the racist origins of the exam. Changing the exam, without acknowledging where the problems stem from in the first place, doesn’t accomplish anything.

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