Mom’s Car

Do terms like “race deterioration” and “eugenics” make you feel uncomfortable? If so, you may be surprised to learn that the entire standardized testing industry was created explicitly to address such concepts. Dr. Robert Yerkes, past president of the American Psychologic Association, was tasked by the US Army to create an entrance exam for military recruits during World War I.  Dr. Yerkes’ test mirrored similar work by the Frenchman Alfred Binet. Both Binet and Yerkes were attempting to quantify an intelligence “factor” in young men. The tests that were created were quickly distorted for an alternative use. Additionally, the ability to easily screen, sort, and rank huge numbers of applicants created a lucrative industry that still dominates today’s educational landscape.

Yerkes task sounded simple: identify military recruits who are not intelligent enough to be productive soldiers. It is important to note that Yerkes created an exam aimed at a large sample size intent on identifying only those at the lowest performance level. The test created was given to over 2 million recruits and was essentially a test of acculturation: immigrants new to the US did the worst. Almost immediately educators questioned if such a test could be used in the inverse: test a smaller group of examinees with stratification at the top. This alternative use was the foundation of what became the SAT and every subsequent high-stakes multiple choice exam since. It cannot be overstated that these tests were not created for this use and have never shown effectiveness in this task.

Taken directly from the 1926 “Army Exam”, the original Scholastic Aptitude Test was essentially a vocabulary exam. As should surprise none, vocabulary exams are inherently tied to which vocabulary is tested and the likelihood that examinees have been exposed to the words in question. When studied, this exam is essentially a proxy for parental income and educational level. It has been well publicized that one of the strongest predictors of your SAT score is the price, and model, of your mother’s car.

Even as some universities ease standardized testing requirements for admission, the industry created is booming. Over 600 million standardized tests are given each year in the United States alone. The USD $3 billion testing business continues to grow at a 35% annual rate. Sadly, these exams have shown a correlation of only 1% (at best) to graduate school success. In medical education standardized exams (in-service exams and board exams) continue to serve as key specialty training “gatekeepers” despite no meaningful way to assess the job these exams have done in this role. It is time for educators in graduate and medical education to stop using convenience as justification for perpetuating the use of these exams.