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Ethnicity, eugenics, and the SAT — the way forward

Ethnicity, eugenics, and the SAT — the way forward

(Photo: The Christian Post/Katherine T. Phan)

Editor's Note:  This op-ed will substitute for the weekly "Ask Dr. Land" column this week. 

Last week the University of California system’s trustee board, which provides oversight to some of the USA’s very best colleges (UC Berkeley, UCLA, Caltech, etc.) voted to completely “phase out” using the famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) completely in its admission’s process by 2025. Why? The board said that the SAT was very unfair to ethnic minorities. They made this decision to abandon the SAT in spite of the fact that their own task force found that SAT scores were a better indicator of college success than high school grade point averages and that the standardized tests “actually give a leg up to black, Latino, and low income students”.

This real ambiguity expressed by the University of California system reflects the fact that there is actually not an open and shut case either for or against the SAT. For example, The New York Times op-ed, "Will the Coronavirus Kill College Admissions Tests?" and the Los Angeles Times' "Editorial: Despite complaints about bias, the University of California shouldn’t dump the SAT and ACT". 

At this point, in the interest of full transparency, I need to disclose my own somewhat ambivalent relationship with the SAT. The SAT is a flawed barometer of human intelligence. It measures a particular kind of linear, left-brained intelligence, one that is particularly valued by graduate and professional schools that grant MDs, MBAs, and PhDs. However, whenever I acknowledge that fact, I feel like a terrible ingrate because the SAT has been very, very good to me. When in 1964, as the son of a blue collar family in a largely working class and lower middle class high school, I scored an almost perfect score on the “verbal” half of the test, and ranked among the top percentiles over all, and it literally change the course of my life. My SAT performance enabled me to attend Princeton University on a full academic scholarship. I have no illusions that I would have ever been admitted to Princeton without my SAT scores, despite the fact that I was in the top 3% of my graduating class, graduating summa sum laude and was named “Outstanding Senior Boy.”

When I enrolled at Princeton in September 1965, I was part of the first class in the university’s history to have more “public” than private school students. Freshman year the “preppies” did better academically than we “proles” as we called ourselves (i.e., “proletariat”). They had been better educated in their elite prep schools than we had been, and just as importantly, they were used to being away from home while many of us suffered from excruciating home-sickness, at least until our first Christmas.

We public school boys also had to cope with the psychological adjustment referred to by President Goheen in our first assembly as a class in the first week on campus. The president looked us over and said, “Boys, most of you are used to being the smartest boy in class. Here you are just one of the boys!” (Princeton did not go coed until the year after we graduated in 1969.)

After our freshman year, however, we generally did better academically than our prep school classmates. And, we had to score higher on the SAT in order to get in because our high school academic class standing meant less to the admissions committee than the preppies’ diploma from elite boarding schools did.

Now, having paid due homage to the SAT’s role in my life, I can now reiterate the fact that the SAT is a flawed evaluative tool. The question is how flawed is it, and should it be abandoned unless we have something more useful and objective to replace it?

The SAT does have rank racism and elitism in its family tree. The SAT’s founder, a young Princeton psychology professor named Carl Brigham, who developed the SAT in the 1920s, was an avid eugenicist who, along with significant numbers of fellow eugenicists, believed in “the intellectual superiority of the Nordic race” (Endiya Griffan, Teen Vogues).

Sadly, eugenics was very popular in America in the 1920s and 1930s. Eugenics was the so-called “science” of seeking to “improve” the human race through selective breeding. Eugenics was largely invented and popularized by Francis Galton (1822-1911), the English statistician, anthropologist, and proto-geneticist. He was deeply influenced by his cousin Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species (1859), and this led to the publication of Galton’s Hereditary Genius in 1869.

Eugenics was the “Frankenstein monster” offspring of Darwin’s theory of evolutionary origins being mated with Galton’s racially-tinged genetics. In their outrageous hubris, they thought they could selectively breed bigger and better human beings the way you would breed animals, and the definition of “bigger and better” were contaminated by racism and by their faulty and sinful definition and understanding of these terms. (More about this hugely popular and influential de-humanizing movement and its current scientific manifestations next week.)

Certainly the SAT has for many years done its best to eliminate the overt racism in which it was birthed. However, its critics assert that the SAT is still “racially and economically discriminating in effect, if no longer in intent.” 

The “proof,” the SAT’s critics say, is shown by the SAT’s ethnic disparity in testing outcomes. For example, in 2019, for the percentages of test-takers who scored at least 1200 (out of a possible 1600 and a score that would get you into many competitive colleges just below the Ivy League level), the results were as follows: Asian American (55%), Caucasian Americans (45%), Hispanic Americans (12%), and Blacks (9%).

However, the question must be asked, do those scores reflect bias in the SAT’s testing procedures, or is it more a reflection of existing socio-economic conditions among the various ethnic groups in current American society? It does, for instance, almost perfectly reflect the current percentage of stable family formation of these various comparative ethnic groups. Could it be the SAT’s results, rather than revealing bias, instead unmask the catastrophic impact of fatherlessness and divorce on the current generation of high school students? (And it is impossible to separate fatherlessness from significantly worse economic circumstances, which impacts the quality of the public schools students attend. Eliminating the SAT will not ameliorate those negative social forces and the impact they have on the education of our nation’s children.

If you assume, as I do, that the human race is one race (Eve is the mother of living) and that genius and academic prowess are evenly distributed by our Heavenly Father among the various human ethnic groups, then the measurable differences in academic prowess are functions of socio-economic factors, and the SAT helps to distillate them out for examination and remediation.

As I said earlier, I attended a large (3,600 students), urban, public high school in a working and lower middle class neighborhoods of Houston, Texas. I was given an education in that public school (and the elementary and junior high school that preceded it) which allowed me to compete successfully for a full academic scholarship to Princeton and prepared me to make the Dean’s List my sophomore, junior, and senior years and to graduate magna cum laude.

When I attended my 50th high school reunion in 2015, at least a couple dozen of us were talking about how fortunate we were to go to high school back then. Goodness knows, none of us grew up in affluence. The vast majority of us were disproportionately oldest children since our dads came home from WWII in 1945 and 1946, and we were the first children of the historic baby boom. Most of our dads went to work with their names on their shirts and showered when they got home from work like my dad the welder did. However, none of us grew up in a broken home. Our parents worked hard, stayed married, and held high aspirations for their children to study hard and go to college (and about 85% of us did). I do not believe you can overestimate how that home environment impacted each member of the class of 1965 in terms of positive academic performance. It sounds like a lost world, doesn’t it?

Yet, it doesn’t have to be. I am not naïve enough to believe that all of our parents had happy and fulfilling marriages. However, they had made promises and commitments, and they focused on fulfilling their responsibilities and keeping their commitments rather than giving priority to their desires and wishes. God bless them. We, the children, benefited greatly from their commitments and personal sacrifices.

I personally believe that the two greatest tragedies in current American civilization today are first, the millions of babies we “throw away” every year through abortions. God had a plan and a productive purpose for every one of these precious future fellow citizens. Second, is the millions of young people, disproportionately brown and black, who are being systematically under-educated by our nation’s school systems K-12 and as a consequence, their vast human potential is being wasted, underdeveloped — “thrown away.”     

If we truly want to address and seek to eliminate inequities in our nation’s educational system, focusing on eliminating the SAT is focusing on the wrong end of the problem. Yes, try to find ways to improve the SAT and other evaluative tests. But if we really want to address the problem, we need to focus on K-5 education and the social and familial breakdowns that are so ravaging to our nation’s children and their future prospects.

I admit it’s a lot easier to just banish and exile a messenger like the SAT, but if we truly want to rescue millions of our children who are failing through no fault of their own, we must address the systemic inequalities in our society which are grievously exacerbated by the social and familial breakdown we have witnessed at all levels of American society since the 1960s.

Let us be about our Heavenly Father’s business and seek to rescue the little ones — the innocent who have been victimized by what amounts to “collective societal child abuse” expressed through abortion, illegitimacy, divorce, and epidemic fatherlessness.      

Dr. Richard Land, BA (magna cum laude), Princeton; D.Phil. Oxford; and Th.M., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, was president of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) and has served since 2013 as president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, NC. Dr. Land has been teaching, writing, and speaking on moral and ethical issues for the last half century in addition to pastoring several churches.