Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Lewis Terman and the measurement of intelligence

This year, Lewis Madison Terman (1877-1956) published 'The Measurement of Intelligence', in which he introduced the Stanford-Binet intelligence test that became widely used in the United States to determine a person's "intellectual ability."

For most of his academic career Lewis Terman was affiliated to Stanford University, where he was a professor of education and psychology from 1910 to 1946. His work had a significan impact on educational field in the United States and other countries, especially during the first half of the 20th century.

The tests Terman developed, the research he conducted, and the students he trained all contributed to a multi-tiered educational system strongly prejudiced against immigrant and ethnic minority students.

After the intelligence test was released in 1916, Terman gained prominence in many circles and was invited during World War I (1914-1918) to help the United States military sort out and categorize the multitudes of recruits destined for Europe's murderous trenches. He and one of his graduate students, Author Otis, helped develop the Army Alpha and Beta tests to determine what functions and duties best suited a soldier. In an eighteen month period they tested and classified over 1.7 million inductees. The Beta test differed from the Alpha in that it was developed for illiterate and foreign-language soldiers. By avoiding the use of language and employing only gestures and pantomime, the testers felt that they had a culture-free test. The polemic here, of course, is the general recognition of the near, if not complete, impossibility of extracting culture from content. But, as we will see shortly, this dilemma did not prevent Terman and his acolytes from conquering the minds of educational policy makers.

In addition to his work for the U.S. army, Terman created the Stanford Achievement Test for use in his longitudinal study of gifted children. One significant outcome of this study was the emergence of the famous term "intelligence quotient," or "I.Q.", which Terman developed from Stern's concept of 'mental quotient'.

Terman also advocated "a mental test for every child," and in 1919, the General Education Board of the Rockefeller Foundation, noting the capacity of intelligence tests to classify large numbers of people, awarded Terman a grant to develop a national intelligence test. Within a year 400,000 tests were available for use in public elementary schools.

Terman's scientific approach to classifying student ability coincided well with prevalent ideas emerging among Progressive educators in the 1910s. In the realm of education, Progressives believed that curriculum and instructional methods should emanate from scientific research. Luckily for Terman, few seriously questioned his unscientific assumptions that intelligence was largely hereditary and that the I.Q. was a valid measurement of intelligence. By 'scientifically' proving that recent immigrants and blacks scored lower than whites due to an inferior mental endowment, he catered strongly to the nativism and prejudice of many Americans.

At Stanford, Terman trained many graduate students who went to their local school districts experiment with Terman's research methods. Two districts, Oakland and San Josť, faced with increasing enrollment and diversity, solicited their help. In Oakland, the testers concluded that varying inherent mental abilities called for the segregation of students into mentally homogeneous classes. That these divisions occurred along racial and ethnic lines seemed to only confirm the prejudices of the day: Oakland administrators and teachers were enthusiastic over the outcome of the studies. Also, in an ominous reference to the U.S. government's use of Terman's tests to rationalize their perpetration of clear civil rights abuses, such as the Sedition Act of 1917 which led to the jailing union activists and stifling of union organizing, one tester rationalized the need for tracking by observing that "when students were faced with expectations that exceeded their abilities, the natural result was loss of interest, a loss of self-respect or a resort to subterfuge, social unrest, and sham, and the I.W.W. spirit may easily have their beginnings in these early social problems ."

Meanwhile, the 'culture-free' nature of these intelligence tests brought the San Josť testers to similar conclusions as their Oakland compatriots, with the added finding of 42% mental retardation among "Latins," and a mean I.Q. of 83. Because the tests were culturally neutral, according to the examiners, the "language handicap does not exist in the case of the children of South European descent. . .The true difficulty is one of mental capacity, or general intelligence, which makes Latins unable to compete with the children of North European ancestry in the mastery of the traditional American public school curriculum."

With the practical success of his educational program demonstrated in California's San Francisco Bay Area, Terman moved up the academic ladder to become the President of the American Psychological Association in 1923. From this position he was able to nationally advertise his two major studies: The Intelligence of School Children and Intelligence Tests and School Reorganization. Ability grouping quickly came to characterize many of America's public schools as a "progressive" reform and "thus heralded a new role in society for schools as sorters."


The Encyclopedia of Education, Macmillian (New York, 1971)

Paul Davis Chapman, "Schools as Sorters: Testing and Tracking in California 1910-1925," a paper delivered to the San Francisco Commission on Education (April 8, 1979)

Prepared by Philip Leeman (UCLA), 1998

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