The perception that tests measure general intelligence is widespread at Columbia. From people putting their SAT scores on their LinkedIn to students bragging about how well they did on a final, everyone seems to assume that doing well on a test devoted to learned skills somehow indicates a person’s overall intelligence. Further, people think that somehow this measure of intelligence means that they deserve to be at an institution like Columbia. This is a dangerous assumption, but nowhere is this perception more propagated by than the SAT.
The SAT was originally created by Carl Brigham, a psychology professor at Princeton University and an early proponent of the eugenics movement in the United States; he even published a book on the topic titled A Study of American Intelligence. Brigham believed that the SAT could serve as a way of proving Americans descended from Northern Europeans were more intelligent than those descended from other races. He assumed that since a multiple-choice test is less subjective than other forms of tests and produced replicable results, it must demonstrate some form of inherent intelligence in a person, which was dubbed “native intelligence.”
However, toward the end of his life, Brigham began to have serious doubts about the test he had created. In a manuscript of his book that he wrote shortly before his death, he stated, “The test movement came into this country … accompanied by one of the most glorious fallacies in the history of science, namely, that the tests measured native intelligence purely and simply without regard to training or schooling. I hope nobody believes that now."
Despite Brigham’s qualms, the SAT is one of the largest factors in college admissions today. From college websites boasting about the average SAT score of their students to colleges making admissions decisions based on a student’s score, the SAT is deeply embedded as a gatekeeper to higher education in America. However, a closer look at data released from the College Board, the organization that administers the SAT, reveals worrisome statistics. According to the data, wealthier Americans from more educated families perform disproportionately better on the SAT than any other group. Critics might argue that this statistic itself is not surprising—perhaps well-educated and intelligent parents produce intelligent offspring. However, upon closer inspection, the data reveals another interesting finding. SAT scores also increase dramatically based on whether or not the students took the Preliminary SAT examination. This statistic, coupled with data that shows that people who prepare for the SAT tend to perform better, point to a different conclusion. Your SAT score correlates closely with how much you were able to prepare for the examination.
This finding is not necessarily negative. The test rewards people who prepare. However, the ability to prepare for the test itself is highly dependent on wealth. Wealthy Americans often spend large sums of money on private tutors and test preparation for children, in order to ensure that they perform well on the test in order to demonstrate they are “intelligent.” However, students from low-income backgrounds often do not have the same resources.
We should be quick to check ourselves before assuming that grades on examinations like the SAT correlate directly to intelligence. This data even calls into question what these examinations themselves are testing because if they can be prepared for, then are they really testing any form of general intelligence? Additionally, data shows that SAT scores serve as a poor predictor of overall college performance. Therefore, a person’s SAT score is a better indication of someone’s privilege than of their intelligence.
The phenomenon of correlating an SAT score with intelligence gets at a more fundamental idea. Our society is built to perpetuate inequality. It is built upon a sorting system that decides who gets to attend elite universities and advance to later attain wealth and power in society. In order to decide who gets to attend these universities, metrics are developed to justify why some individuals get the right to attend these institutions over others. The SAT is one of these metrics.
If Columbia is interested in pushing back against the inequalities that are inherent in SAT testing, it should consider becoming test optional and allow students who did not perform well on the SAT to present themselves without the burden of an intelligence-invalidating SAT score. But change shouldn’t come from the administration alone. Students should also work to shift their mentality away from the idea that tests are a direct measure of intelligence and instead come to see them for what they really are—a narrow measure of ability in a particular subject area.
As a society we have bought wholeheartedly into the idea that this sorting system is somehow meritocratic and rewards the intelligent. This is a lie. The fact that SAT scores increase dramatically based on household wealth underlies an important point: Students who have the financial resources to prepare for the exam are able to perform better and have easier access to elite colleges. As a result, children of wealthy parents are able to justify their high test scores as simply a sign of their “intelligence” and do not feel a need to justify their immense societal privilege. We can change this narrative, if students are willing to begin by acknowledging their luck.
We are all at Columbia mostly due to luck. Call it luck of being born in the right place, with the right social network connections. Whether it take the form of wealthy, driven parents or a scholarship program, we are all lucky in some way (some more than others). Therefore, if we suspend the idea that anyone deserves to attend Columbia over another person, a different question comes to mind: What are you going to do with the privilege that’s been given to you?
Robert Godfried is a senior in Columbia College majoring in sociology. He accepts the fact that you are probably smarter than him regardless of your SAT score. Robert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Sexy Side of Local Politics runs alternate Thursdays.
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