Intelligence testing

Definition: Use of psychometric standards concerning verbal and nonverbal abilities as part of legislation guiding decisions regarding authorized entry of foreigners into the United States

Significance: The nascent science of intelligence testing developed in confluence with growing support for more severe controls on the acceptance of foreign-born entrants to the United States. Proponents of this view were able to highlight some of the early studies of psychologists conducting intelligence testing research as part of their efforts to pass restrictive immigration legislation, even in the face of presidential vetoes.

Intelligence testing has a long, honored tradition in the United States. It originated in France, where psychologist Alfred Binet was the first researcher to categorize student performances on specific reasoning tasks in terms of what he called their "mental ages” between 1904 and 1908. When he judged that students’ mental ages were substantially lower than their chronological ages, he concluded that the test result argued for special remedial programs for the students. In 1912, the German psychologist William Stern defined "intelligence quotient,” or "IQ,” as a ratio of mental age divided by chronological age, multiplied by 100. What began in Europe as an earnest attempt to identify the needs of students with learning disabilities became a source of labeling with serious consequences in twentieth century America.

In 1910, the American psychologist Henry H. Goddard translated Binet’s work into English. Goddard invented the label "moron” for any adult with a mental age between eight and twelve and advocated that those with IQs below 70 should not be allowed to have children. This perspective fit in well with a budding eugenics movement in the United States that advocated genetic engineering to raise intelligence levels, while reducing poverty and criminality. Lewis Terman, a professor at Stanford University, adapted the Binet scale and its measured intelligence quotient into its most commonly used form. Like Goddard, however, he was heavily influenced by biological determinism and at least initially supported the idea that there were racial differences in human intelligence that reflected differing biological makeups. He recanted this view in 1937, but not before the stage was set for changes in important immigration legislation in the United States that reflected his earlier orientation toward the understanding of intelligence.

Intelligence Testing and Immigration Law

The psychological work with the closest influence on later immigration policy was performed by Robert Yerkes of Harvard University. In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, he created the Army Mental Tests and oversaw their administration to 1.75 million Army draftees. Two versions of the tests, "Alpha” and "Beta,” provided written and pictorial modalities so that illiterate servicemen could be tested as well. Carl Brigham, a Princeton University psychologist, analyzed the data that were collected and concluded that nativeborn draftees had higher IQ scores than immigrants. Moreover, a "Nordic” (northern European) subgroup had higher scores than those from southern and eastern Europe.

Brigham’s work was attacked on methodological grounds, and he recanted his conclusions in 1930. However, he published his findings in 1923, the year before the federal Immigration Act of 1924 greatly restricted foreign entry to the United States. This act initially used the 1890 census as a basis for establishing strict quotas not to exceed 2 percent of those fromeach country included in the census. It greatly reduced the number of southeastern Europeans allowed into the country and had an impact that would be acutely felt during World War II, when entry was largely denied to European Jews seeking a safe haven from extermination in the Nazi Holocaust. Although detailed analyses of empirical work supporting immigration restrictions do not appear in the congressional hearings concerning this law, the acceptance of biological determinism and the discriminatory treatment of minorities may well have contributed to its passage.

Later Perspectives

Relatively soon after the Immigration Act of 1924 was passed, the popularity of using racial theories of intelligence as guideposts to immigration law and policy waned. There was an increasing realization that test performances reflected familiarity with American culture and language more often than they did an assessment of native intelligence. Meanwhile, members of the psychology-research establishment became more ethnically diverse, and during the aftermath ofWorldWar II there was more of an interest in explaining prejudicial attitudes. This was accentuated by a eugenics-oriented policy carried to horrific extremity by the German Nazi regime in Europe.

While the current intelligence testing community is much more sensitive to issues of cultural bias and attempts to develop "culture-fair” or "culturefree” instruments, elements of biological determinism have persisted. The Human Genome Project, which some people have claimed has important implications for controlling psychological disorders related to crime and homelessness, is a prominent example.

In addition, the early twenty-first century U.S. "war on terrorism,” with its restriction of basic civil liberties, perpetuates an orientation toward selecting out undesirables in order to eliminate their perceived threat. Instead of classifying would-be immigrants as "feebleminded” on the basis of intelligence tests of questionable validity, there has developed a tendency to employ modern biometric technology that enforces even more restrictive policies to bolster homeland security.

Eric Yitzchak Metchik

Further Reading

Elliott, Stuart, Naomi Chudowsky, Barbara Plake, and Lorraine McDonnell. "Using the Standards to Evaluate the Redesign of the U.S. Naturalization Tests: Lessons for the Measurement Community.” Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice 25, no. 1 (Fall, 2006): 22-26. Methodological critique of attempts by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to revise naturalization tests. 

Perdew, Patrick R. "Developmental Education and Alfred Binet: The Original Purpose of Standardized Testing.” In 2001: A Developmental Odyssey, edited by Jeanne L. Higbee. Warrensburg, Mo.: National Association for Developmental Education, 2001. Comprehensive review of the historical evolution of intelligence testing in the United States, including its relationship to biological determinism and immigration law and practice. 

Resta, Robert G. "The Twisted Helix: An Essay on Genetic Counselors, Eugenics, and Social Responsibility.” Journal of Genetic Counseling 1, no. 3 (1992): 227-243. Examination of the historical implications of the eugenics movement and its most recent manifestations. 

Samelson, Franz. "From ‘Race Psychology’ to ‘Studies in Prejudice’: Some Observations on the Thematic Reversal in Social Psychology.” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 14 (1978): 265-278. Analysis of historical reasons for change in social psychological research, from studies of alleged racial differences in intelligence to causal models explaining racial prejudice. 

Snyderman, Mark, and R. J. Herrnstein. "Intelligence Tests and the Immigration Act of 1924.” American Psychologist 38, no. 9 (1983): 986-995. Critical analysis of the alleged link between viewpoints of psychologists conducting intelligence research and the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 that greatly restricted immigration. 

See also: "Brain drain”; Eugenics movement; Higher education; Immigration Act of 1924; Immigration law; Language issues; Literacy tests; "Mongrelization”; Quota systems; Stereotyping.

Add comments

Sergey Tokarev1 answers 20 January 2016 21:25

Good article

Chakallo0 answers 12 February 2016 21:21

Erh, our sure win formula can only work in ovtpropulaeed, land scarce, near dictatorial, and of course needing talented politicians able to shaft unpleasant medication down the throats of daft citizens without a murmur.In other words, what can work in other places cannot work in red dot, and what can work in red dot cannot work elsewhere. It is that simple an explanation that I have heard for well over 45 years.

A–Z index