Did You Know ? . . . SAT and Mental Health

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The American Mental Health Foundation takes no official position on the SAT. We do, however, recognize the tremendous anxiety it engenders. As in many areas related to mental health, knowing something about the history gives us greater awareness of how current practices developed. You will see how this bit of history offers a lesson to the field of mental health.

More and more criticism is directed toward the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) every year, and 2009 is no exception as a good number of colleges have dropped or are dropping this as a requirement for admission. The arguments for and against this test need no summarizing, although I enjoy the Will Rogers-like comment by one pundit: “You’re against the SAT when you don’t do well on it.”

(A fact: both the SAT and Babe Ruth’s home-run record are from the same year.)

The SAT originated directly with Alfred Binet, psychologist at the Sorbonne at the turn of the 20th century. Too many children were not meeting expectations in school. Frequently, it was hard to identify learning problems or giftedness from teacher or parent reports along. Binet believed that more was needed. He developed a two-hour exam that was administered individually. In this way, careful observation could be made. (If the child were having a bad day or was anxious this would not be counted in the tally.) Most of all, the psychologist administering this “test” would focus on finding the strengths and weaknesses of the child. Then, everyone as a team would make a decision. The results may or may not have been relevant for a particular child.

Binet did not like it when some started to focus on the numerical results that the test provided. In fact, he said that the reason for the test was to help place children into optimum environments, not to compare them with each other. His famous phrase is Classify, Don’t Measure.

For many, even today, Binet’s underlying philosophy is a good one.

Unfortunately, Binet lost control of how intellectual and educational testing was administered; and it was World War I that changed the modality of testing forever. The United States entered the war unexpectedly. The Army needed to test recruits immediately to know who could read and write and might have the savvy to become an officer. The Army made Binet’s test a fill-in-with-pencil type that took only 15 minutes and could be given to hundreds of recruits at a time. It worked. The Army found good leaders quickly. The war effort was successful. An expensive 2-hour individual test became a 15-minute one; its use instead of Binet’s tests could save countless dollars.

Educators know a cost-effective measure when they see one. Within a decade, the Education Testing Service developed the SAT, and schools everywhere began to use group tests to measure intelligence and other academic areas.

Binet’s focus on time-intensive, careful, and individualistic assessment for strengths as well as weaknesses, was lost. Unfortunately, many still equate any kind of “testing” with the anonymous character of those given to hundreds of people in large auditoriums.

As those of us in the mental-health field continue to look for greater cost-effective ways to deliver services, we also need to be careful not to forget the importance of face-to-face time. This is the goal of the American Mental Health Foundation. We at AMHF hope that Alfred Binet’s approach of personalized attention continues to be used evermore in this 21st century.

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