An Untold Story of Resistance
African-American Educators and IQ Testing in the 1920's and '30's
Illustrator: Rick Reinhard
(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 policymakers, 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 the men and women who provided counter-arguments to the use of tests for tracking and racial ranking. 4
This was not an easy thing to do in the early 20th century. Most of the academics generating studies on IQ testing were trained in doctoral programs in psychology. Only a few northern universities accepted African-American students into doctoral psychology programs. Black colleges in the 1920s were just beginning to offer doctorates in this field. It was even more difficult for African-American women to get graduate-level training in psychology in this era.
Despite these challenges, the Black colleges offered a unique educational environment, one that nurtured a different view of human potential. White researchers in the area of human development throughout the 1920s usually focused on the differences among human beings. Educators at these Black colleges stressed the inherent similarities. 5
African-American scholars who graduated from these schools also challenged the accepted myths that were held as scientific truth by most of their white counterparts. These included:
- Test scores proved that African Americans and other “lesser strains” were innately inferior to Northern European whites.
- Environmental conditions had little to do with performance on IQ tests. Intelligence was essentially fixed and unchangeable.
- Exceptionally intelligent children were rarely found among African Americans.
- Children of mixed white and Black ancestry had a higher intelligence than “pure Negro” Blacks. (This was known as the “mulatto hypothesis” at the time.)
- Better educational opportunities made little difference in helping children succeed.
One of the first educators to challenge these myths and Brigham’s interpretations of IQ test scores was Horace Mann Bond (1904-1972). Bond wrote a scathing critique of A Study of American Intelligence in Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP. Bond, like other African-American intellectuals of the era, found it very difficult to be published in the white-controlled press. Publications like Crisis and The Journal of Negro Education were crucial in circulating the ideas of African-American writers.
His article, “Intelligence Tests and Propaganda” was published in 1924. At the time Bond was the Director of the School of Education at Langston University in Oklahoma. While not formally trained as a psychologist, Bond demonstrated a remarkable insight into the construction and use of these tests. In the article he dismissed the claim that these tests were objective. Instead, Bond called them “funds for propaganda” and encouraged each African-American student to, “…be in possession of every detail of the operation, use, and origin of these tests, in order that he might better equip himself as an active agent against the insidious propaganda which seeks to demonstrate that the Negro is intellectually and physically incapable of assuming the dignities, rights, and duties which devolve upon him as a member of modern society.”6
Bond went on to model what he hoped inquiring students would do with this kind of research. In particular, he questioned Brigham’s thesis, which was widely shared by psychological testers, that African Americans from the North who scored consistently better on IQ tests did so because they were a ” higher strain of Negro.” Bond drew attention to the fact that African-American children on average received relatively better education in northern schools than their counterparts in the South.
Bond offered a small study he conducted among college freshmen at Lincoln University to refute Brigham’s thesis. The number of African-American students from Northern and Southern states was about evenly divided at the school. Bond administered IQ tests similar to the ones used on U.S. Army recruits and subsequently analyzed by Brigham in A Study in American Intelligence. Bond discovered that students from the South did not do as well on these tests as Northern students. Unlike Brigham his study demonstrated that the resources, preparation of the teaching staff, and curricula were worse in the Jim Crow schools of the South. Bond wrote that academic performance of these students at Lincoln did improve when given better opportunities. He wrote, “…when placed in the same environment, given the same treatment, taught by the same staff, it is found that these men from the poorer Southern schools are just as quick in grasping and making the best of the new college surroundings.” 7
Other African-American educators at this time, such as Howard Hale Long of Paine College, raised similar objections to Brigham’s work. Their writings and Bond’s research did not receive any outside foundation funding nor were they widely reported. Yet, Bond highlighted some of the underlying causes for variations in test scores between different groups of students. Since his time, hundreds of better-funded research studies have confirmed his essential premises.
In 1927 Bond wrote another article in Crisis. In this essay, Bond attacked the myth that IQ test scores proved African Americans had no people of “exceptional intellect.” Bond’s tone was impatient and filled with sarcasm as he referred to IQ testing as a “major indoor sport among psychologists.” 8 He wondered why white psychologists emphasized the need for a rapport between white testers and white children but did not think it necessary to emphasize the same approach with African-American children. He also wondered why normed samples were always based on white middle- and upper-class students.
Bond and his research team decided to “alter the rules of the game. “They were determined to create a positive and reassuring environment for the students chosen to take the test. They also wanted to include students from a variety of economic backgrounds. Thirty schoolchildren from Chicago were selected for the study. A comfortable testing situation was provided in a small group setting. Students were given encouragement and emotional support before the test was administered. The students came from working-class, middle-class, and professional family backgrounds.
The results of the test shattered long-standing beliefs in the testing community. Bond found that 63% of the children scored above 106, whereas Terman found in his sample of white youth that only 33% did so. Bond added, “Mr. Terman states that only 5% of white children may be expected to equal or exceed an IQ of 122; no less than 47% of our subjects exceeded this score.” 9 Bond was not making the case for a reverse racial superiority. Rather he argued that economic class, parental emphasis of reading at an early age, and a stimulating school environment would boost scores for all children.
By 1930 most research into differences in intelligence had moved away from racial explanations. While racist social attitudes and polices were still entrenched in the larger society, African-American researchers were now joined by a few prominent white colleagues. The published works by anthropologist Melville Herskovits and psychologist Otto Klineberg in the 1930s supported the findings of Bond. They were some of the first white social scientists, along with Franz Boas and Margaret Mead, to write and speak out against the racial myths infusing the research on intelligence testing.
Also, in the 1930s African-American intellectuals were beginning to receive more opportunities to publish and gain resources for extensive research studies. The playing field was hardly equal, but these scholars took advantage of the small openings that appeared. This can be seen in the work of Martin Jenkins (1904-1978). Jenkins did his undergraduate work at Howard University and was the first African American to receive a Ph.D. in psychology from Northwestern University, in 1935. He built upon the work of Bond and others in the 1920s to do major studies of school children in Chicago.
Jenkins confirmed what people like Bond and Long had been saying in the 1920s. He found that a greater percentage of African-American students scored higher on IQ tests when they had elevated economic and educational backgrounds. Furthermore, these scores were represented evenly throughout various age and grade levels, as long as students maintained higher levels of economic and educational support. No evidence supported the thesis that African-American students who performed well on the tests did so because of alleged white ancestry. Jenkins conclusions were clear:
The findings of this study suggest that the differences in test performance of white and Negro children found by so many investigators are not due to inherent racial factors. In-home background, in developmental history, in physical development, in school progress, in educational achievement, in interests, in activities, and in social and personal characteristics Negro children of superior intelligence [high scores on IQ tests] resemble other American children of superior intelligence. 10
Jenkins was able to cite numerous studies by both Black and white educators in drawing his conclusions. Also, now he and other African-American scholars were beginning to be cited by white scholars such as Herskovitz and Klineberg. New ground was being broken. In 1939 Jenkins was one of the first African-American researchers to have his findings about race and IQ included in an educational journal that was not restricted to primarily African-American audiences. Previously, articles of this kind had to be co-authored with a white scholar if they were to be accepted in publications such as The Journal of Educational Psychology or The Journal of Social Psychology.
Many other African-American scholars also spoke out and wrote against the racist use of IQ tests. Herman Canady, Charles St. Clair Price, and Charles Johnson were only some of the names.11 They represented varying interests in approaching questions of race and IQ testing. Yet almost all entered their research with a basic assumption that students were similar in their capacity to achieve when provided with adequate learning environments and social opportunities.
The legacy of these efforts is with us today. Progressive education rests on some of the foundation blocks laid by people like Horace Mann Bond and Martin Jenkins. Many of today’s educational programs have sprung from their contributions. The need for early intervention programs in reading, the importance of using multiple assessments to monitor student learning, and the need to create school cultures that foster high expectations for all students are beliefs that have been drawn from their work. They make up the canon of good education. However, when African-American educators were writing in the ’20s their ideas often were seen as radical, flying in the face of established dogma.
Also, we know that discredited ideas from the past can have a remarkable power to persist. It is a terrible irony that Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve, the modern-day equivalent of Carl Brigham’s A Study in American Intelligence, is more well-known than the writings of Bond or Jenkins. And it is a scandal that The Bell Curve recycle some of the arguments debunked by African-American intellectuals back in the 1920s but still manages to become a best seller in the 1990s.
Brigham recanted his views in 1930 because he realized that the findings of Bond, Jenkins, Long, Klineberg, and others undermined the credibility of his work. Brigham concluded in his article in The Psychological Review:
This review has summarized some of the most recent test findings which show that comparative studies of various national and racial groups may not be made with existing tests, and which show, in particular, that one of the most pretentious of these comparative racial studies – the writer’s own – was without foundation.12
No such recantation has ever come from Herrnstein, now deceased, or Murray.
While still embraced by some policymakers and academics, The Bell Curve has also been denounced by a range of scholars and laypeople – quite a different reaction from when Brigham’s A Study in American Intelligence was published. This time many white educators joined African-American scholars in writing and speaking out against the assumptions, methodology, and policy conclusions found in the book. Then early forgotten graduates of Howard, Lincoln, Virginia Union, and numerous other Black colleges had laid the intellectual foundations for these critiques much earlier.
As things change, they remain the same. Jim Crow no longer rules American society. The views of Terman and Brigham on race and intelligence would be on the margins of today’s educational research. But we also know that attitudes and practices of the past can be reworked and institutionalized in other ways. In fact the echoes of the past are loudly heard in the reliance on high-stakes tests to shape educational policy. Except now the tests are not purporting to be sorting devices based on a racial ranking according to IQ scores but instead on student, teacher, and school performance. The schools and students who do poorly on these exams will once again be those who do not have access to better resources. The tracking and unequal funding that were institutionalized in the 1920s will be only further entrenched in the current incarnation of high-stakes testing.
The past efforts of African-American educators can be instructive for the educational climate we are living in today. Black colleges helped nurture an alternative paradigm to intelligence and learning that enabled African-American educators to question the dominant assumptions of the day. Today we need educational spaces in our communities that encourage similar alternative views to established policy. In the 1920s and ’30s African-American educators struggled against incredible racial barriers. Their ideas deserved a wider circulation. Today, we have greater opportunities to build coalitions with various groups of people to press for a rethinking of what is being accepted as dogma.
Equally important is the contribution these educators made in keeping alive the promise of American democracy. When schools mimicked the policies of exclusion in the wider society, African-American intellectuals demanded a higher standard of democratic justice for the nation’s youth. Through moral outrage and intellectual rigor they helped set in motion a movement of ideas that defined education as the liberation of human potential. Those ideas were needed then. We must not forget them today.
FOR FURTHER READING
V. P. Franklin, “Black Social Scientists and the Mental Testing Movement, 1920-1940,” in Reginald L. Jones, ed., Black Psychology,3rd ed. (Berkeley: Cobb & Henry, 1991).
Robert V. Guthrie, Even the Rat Was White: A Historical View of Psychology, 2nd ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1998).
Sandra Harding, ed., The Racial Economy of Science: Toward a Democratic Future (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993).
1. As quoted in, Robert V. Guthrie, Even the Rat Was White: A Historical View of Psychology (2nd edition) (Boston: Allyn &Bacon,1998), p. 55.
2.David Tyack, The One Best System (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974), p. 219.
3. Carl Brigham, A Study in American Intelligence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1923), p. 210.
4. Guthrie, p. 123.
5. Ibid., p. 125.
6. Horace Mann Bond, “Intelligence Tests and Propaganda,” The Crisis, vol. 28(2), June, 1924, p. 61.
7. Ibid., p. 63.
8. Horace Mann Bond, “Some Exceptional Negro Children,”The Crisis, vol. 34(8), October, 1927, p.257.
9. Ibid., p. 259.
10. Martin D. Jenkins, “A Socio-Psychological Study of Negro Children of Superior Intelligence,” vol. 5 (2), April 1936, pp. 189-190.
11. See bibliography of V. P. Franklin, “Black Social Scientists and the Mental Testing Movement, 1920-1940,” in Black Psychology, 3rd ed., pp. 222-224.
12. Carl Brigham, “Intelligence Traits of Immigrant Groups,” The Psychological Review XXXVII (1930), p. 165.