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African-American Educators and Iq Testing in the 1920,s and '30's

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African-American Educators and IQ Testing in the 1920,s and '30's

By Alan Stoskopf

(EDITOR"S NOTE: The footnotes in this article are hot-linked. Click the numeral to go directly to the footnote information. Click the numeral on the footnote to return to the text.)

It was not until I was long out of school and indeed after the (first)World War that there came the hurried use of the new technique of psychological[IQ] tests, which were quickly adjusted so as to put black folk absolutely beyond the possibility of civilization.

-- W. E. B. Du Bois, 1940 1

The words of W. E. B. Du Bois still haunt us. We are now experiencing another onslaught and "hurried use" of tests in our schools. How African-American educators fought against their uses in the past has important implications for today's resistance to "high-stakes" testing.

We have grown accustomed to the constant refrain of schools needing to institute "world class standards" and be held accountable through externally based, high-stakes exams. Research and experience demonstrate that this version of "education reform" will negatively impact all students, especially students of color from lower income backgrounds. We also know that the best assessments originate in the classroom and are an ongoing part of a student's reflection of her or his progress. Few people realize that current critiques of testing and the calls for more authentic forms of assessment have been built in part upon the pioneering work of African-American intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s.

An appreciation of what these educators did begins with race. The underside to the "Roaring '20s" was its violent racism and xenophobia. Jim Crow ruled. In the South an apartheid-like caste system enveloped daily life. In the North, African Americans faced discrimination in housing, employment, the courts, and schools. The Ku Klux Klan reached its peak of popularity and claimed members in most states. Lynchings of African-American men were a familiar occurrence. Fears of racial impurity propelled the passage of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924. (This act set draconian quotas based on race and nationality. It blatantly favored people of Northern and Western European ancestry and was not substantively revised until 1965.)

Even the liberal New Deal Era of the 1930s did not fundamentally alter striking social inequalities wrought by racism. As an economic depression engulfed the entire nation, the Roosevelt Administration initiated a variety of public works projects aimed at providing relief to ordinary Americans and structural reform to unregulated private enterprise. The aid and reform were not as dramatic as supporters or critics of the New Deal claimed. African-American communities were the hardest hit and received the least amount of relief.

These racial divisions were especially evident in American schooling. By the early 1920s, standardized IQ tests were being used to track millions of students into separate educational curricula. Lewis Terman of Stanford University first developed these tests for schools. The questions on the test were based on a small norm-referenced sample of white, middle- and upper-class children and adults. Terman, like most other white educational researchers of the day, believed these tests objectively measured aptitude and could be used by school systems to rank, order, and sort the school-age population of America. The use of these tests in this fashion reflected a eugenic ideology of human worth, where some individuals and groups were born to be superior and others fated to be inferior. (See Rethinking Schools, Spring 1999, "The Forgotten History of Eugenics.")

African-American children were routinely channeled into either low tracks or separate vocational schools based upon low scores on IQ tests. The resources, curricula, and instruction African-American students received reflected the lower academic expectations white school officials had for them. Unsurprisingly, this institutional racism contributed to high rates of failure and poor school performance among many African-American students. White teachers of African-American students frequently assumed it was the "low mental level" of the race that accounted for their problems in school. 2

The mainstream academic community had given legitimacy to these attitudes in the 1920s. The use of testing for racial tracking purposes had been supported and promoted by distinguished educational theorists. Carl Brigham, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Princeton University, wrote one of the most influential racist interpretations of the IQ test at the time. His book, A Study of American Intelligence, was widely read by policy makers,educators, and the general public. It was frequently referred to in testimony given before the House Immigration hearings. The book provided a "scientific" rationale for the racist quotas established in the 1924 immigration act.

Brigham would later become a dean at Princeton and go onto develop the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). In A Study of American Intelligence he wrote:

According to all evidence available then, American intelligence is declining, and will proceed with an accelerating rate as the racial admixture becomes more and more extensive. The decline of American intelligence will be more rapid than the decline of the intelligence of European groups, owing to the presence here of the negro. These are the plain, if somewhat ugly, facts that our study shows. 3

His book had a monumental impact on public policy and schooling. This book, along with numerous other educational publications in the 1920s, provided the intellectual rationale for inferior schools and diminished educational expectations for African-American students.

While Brigham's ideas represented a dominant educational ideology of the 1920s, these beliefs would not go unchallenged. Helping to lead that challenge were African-American social scientists and educators. They would expose the false assumptions and faulty methodology of those who claimed the tests proved "Negro inferiority." In doing so, they would open up a more expansive vision of intelligence and learning.

The wellspring for resistance began in the Black colleges of the era. These institutions were established in the mid-19th century when African-American men and women were denied admission into white universities. The situation had not changed greatly by the 1920s. By 1940 there were more than 100 Black colleges in operation. Though inadequately funded, understaffed, and with limited facilities, these colleges nonetheless played a vital role in training



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