Henry Chauncey at about the time he founded ETS in 1947 (left) and in 1999, at age 94.
Kids in South Carolina taking the SAT. (AP)
Carl Brigham, the Princeton academic who invented the SAT, at first believed it proved the superiority of "Nordic" races.
|1947: America's tester-in-chief|
|By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian|
|Forget about acne, fashions and finding a prom date: for upwardly mobile teenagers, the Scholastic Aptitude Test has been the true terror of their high school experience, stirring anxiety with each scratch of the No. 2 pencil.
The SAT serves as main gatekeeper to America's colleges, an invitation to the world of status and high-paying jobs that go with a college education. Score high on it, and your ticket is punched to enter that world. Fail and you might be turned away.
How the SAT came to wield such influence is really the story of a single non-profit institution: Educational Testing Service, which has been producing the test in the Princeton area since 1947.
ETS has the most idealistic of missions - to promote equal opportunity in the schools. It spends millions a year researching how to write multiple-choice questions that will reveal the test-taker's basic intelligence, regardless of race, sex or wealth.
To critics, however, ETS' power is too great, its testing biased, its results unfairly determining the fate of millions of kids every year.
"We've been castigated from the beginning," said Henry Chauncey, the educator who founded ETS in 1947 - and who is now 94 years old. "People who work in the field of testing should be accustomed to wearing a hairshirt."
Tests were not always the entryway into higher education. Before World War I, in fact, they weren't relied upon at all to get into most prestigious colleges.
Then came a Princeton University professor named Carl Campbell Brigham. During the war, he served as an assistant on the Army Mental Tests, which were being used to assign an influx of soldiers into jobs.
The test results, Brigham said, could be used with accuracy to predict a person's innate mental capacity - regardless of social station.
The problem was that the Army Tests were ridiculously slanted, rewarding anyone with a knowledge of brand names, baseball trivia and cuts of beef. When the tests were roundly flunked by recent immigrants and impoverished draftees, Brigham rushed to the conclusion that white, "Nordic" peoples were superior to Jews, Italians, Russians, Poles and Slovaks and African-Americans.
Brigham took his ideas back to Princeton, where he pushed to make undergraduate testing mandatory. In 1925, the College Board - the panel that regulated admission into the Ivy League schools - assigned him to draw up a universal entry exam. The result was the Scholastic Aptitude Test.
The first SAT, like the current one, scored students on a scale of 200 to 800 for each section. It included questions on vocabulary, analogies, reading comprehension, geometry, algebra. Originally it had an essay question, which was dropped in the '50s in favor of pure multiple choice. (In 1994, the SAT began including 10 math questions that require a fill-in-the-blank answer, not a choice.)
Brigham was hired as a full-time test maker by the
College Board, endowed generously and given an office
at 20 Nassau St. A chain-smoker, he fell in love with his paperwork. Once he put wheels on a file cabinet and tied it with a rope to his foot so he could summon up test results with a tug of his leg.
To some critics of the SAT, the test has never been free from the original sin of Brigham's racism. But Brigham renounced his beliefs in the inferiority of non-"Nordic" people in the '30s and conceded that education and social status do, in fact, influence test scores.
"The 'native intelligence' hypothesis is dead," Brigham admitted, and promised to smoothe the biased edges of his test's questions.
During World War II, the SAT and other College Board tests were used to screen officer candidates and place recruits in training programs. Then the war ended and 1 million returning vets flooded into colleges, all of them entitled to an education by the GI Bill of Rights.
Quonset huts and temporary housing sprung up on campuses everywhere. Admission offices were swamped. It was an education crisis of huge proportions and standardized testing became a swift way to sort through the piles of applications.
The College Board thought the time was right to spin off its testing division in Princeton, giving it an independent basis to do research and study on its tests.
Two other firms, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the American Council on Education, agreed to join the new organiziation.
For a name, someone jokingly suggested the National Institute for Straight Thinking. It was Chauncey, the research director, who coined the name that stuck: Educational Testing Service.
On Dec. 19, 1947, ETS received a non-profit charter and officially came into existence. Chauncey was first president.
"The idea was always that the Educational Testing Service would have a broader purpose than testing," Chauncey recalled. "Our interest was bringing out the full development of the individual, through testing, guidance and research about education."
The idealistic Chauncey - a one-time Harvard athlete who had turned down a pro baseball contract to teach - thought of ETS as a college as much as a company.
Staffers were hired as "faculty." New hires were encouraged to think for themselves and take fresh approaches to test questions.
A Collier's magazine article in 1951, "They Know All the Answers," captured the bustling scene at 20 Nassau St. It described writers, most of them young women, poring over textbooks, dictionaries and old tests to formulate new questions.
"Devising the right setting for a question is often their biggest problem," Collier's said.
"A math question based on the number of pounds of flour required to make a certain number of cakes would be ruled out for prospective West Pointers. But it would be okay for a high-school group, because it would get the girls interested."
It was here at 20 Nassau St. that ETS began making the pencil a requirement on all tests. A special graphite pencil left behind a mark on one one of five bubbles. When the test was fed through a test-reading machine, it would record the answer.
By the middle '50s, ETS was cranking out not only the SAT, but the Graduate Record Exam, Law School Admission Test and a host of Foreign Service and military exams - each exam swelling in importance with the size of the American educational establishment.
The company was badly outgrowing its Princeton headquarters. Often, tests had to be prepared at the nearby firehouse on Chambers Street. When the fire alarm rang, employees had to push their work tables out of the way and make room for the engines.
The need to move was obvious. In 1954, Chauncey had a vision of its future when he took a hike along Stony Brook and saw a stretch of open farmland that looked perfect for ETS headquarters.
ETS' move to its 360-acre campus in Lawrence Township was complete by 1958. It was a complex of low-rise, modern, brick buildings, but for the first few years it also shared space with a working dairy farm.
As Chauncey remembers, a cow named Bessie was trying to break the world record for buttermilk production and no one wanted to disturb her. And so, Bessie did set the record.
From the Rosedale Road site, ETS oversaw the transition of the Baby Boom into higher education - the greatest growth of the college population in history.
ETS also fulfilled its research mission, evaluating Head Start and other Great Society programs for low-income and minority youths. In 1969, ETS was asked to study a new show on public TV - "Sesame Street." The company's findings: that poor kids liked and learned from the show.
But with its increasing role in public education, ETS also drew greater scrutiny.
Consumer advocate Ralph Nader joined the attack in 1979, saying the only thing ETS hadn't tried was to "test for admission into heaven" and releasing a study that claimed the SAT did no better than a pair of dice in predicting college performance.
A Washington University professor, Robert Williams, accused the SAT of bias. He showed that black kids could out-perform white kid on an exam he called the Black Intelligence Test of Cultural Homogeneity. The BITCH, for short.
In more recent years, ETS has been hit by massive cheating scandals. In 1996, as many as 299 Louisiana teachers cheated their way into administrative jobs with stolen test answers. And in 1997, a vast operation was uncovered in which hundreds of students paid as much as $9,000 for answers to the GMAT.
"Cheating is immoral, unethical -- and purely understandable," especially when a single test can mean the difference between Wharton and some no-name business school," said Robert Schaeffer of the Center for Fair and Open Testing, a watchdog group based in Cambridge, Mass.
Partly in response to the critics, ETS - once secretive about its tests - has begun sharing information about how it makes them. In 1994, it entered the test-coaching business itself with guides advertising, "We prepare the tests - let us prepare you!"
ETS remains at the peak of its power. It has 2,400 employees, scores tests for 9 million people
and made $490 million last year.
As it grows, however, it struggles with its original mission to promote an equal chance of advancement.
ETS' current president, Nancy Cole, is a strong believer in the benefits of standardized testing. A high SAT score, after all, propelled her from a high school in tiny Wortham, Texas, where she was one of 16 in her senior class, into Rice University and onto a strong career track.
"Test scores were what enabled me to go to the college I wanted, but I also did know people who were smart and didn't do well on tests," Cole said. "We're criticized for that. And it's good that we're criticized instead of ignored, because we want to do better."