Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Inferential Sturdiness and the 1917 Army Alpha: A New Look at the Robustness of Educational Quality Indices as Determinants of Interstate Black-White Score Differentials

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Inferential Sturdiness and the 1917 Army Alpha: A New Look at the Robustness of Educational Quality Indices as Determinants of Interstate Black-White Score Differentials

Article excerpt

The scale, properly speaking, does not permit the measure of the intelligence, because intellectual qualities are not superposable, and therefore cannot be measured as linear surfaces are measured. (Binet, 1905, p. 40)

These group examinations were originally intended, and are now definitely known, to measure native intellectual ability. (Robert Yerkes, quoted in Chase, 1977, p. 249)

From the insightful but largely forgotten words of the man who pioneered the development of mental testing, Alfred Binet, to the mistaken conclusions of the man who first popularized them, Robert Yerkes, the debate over group intelligence testing has continued to rage for the past 70 years. Fueled initially by the results of the government-sponsored Army Alpha exam in 1917, critics have long argued that score differentials across ethnic groups are due largely to differences in environmental conditions, not differences in innate ability. Rury (1988) presents statistical evidence to show that such environmental influences as educational quality and economic development were important determinants of interstate Black-White score differentials on the Army Alpha. The present article first generalizes these findings by constructing a series of educational quality indices designed to test the inferential sturdiness of Rury's results across a family of related models. It then extends Rury's findings by measuring the absolute as well as relative importance of the two effects.

The actual process through which Binet's original tests and resulting scale evolved into the Army Alpha has been described in detail in several fascinating accounts in the literature and will not be repeated here.(1) Suffice it to say that through Goddard's introduction and popularization of Binet's scale in the United States and Terman's work at Stanford University to revise the scale to measure the "innate" intelligence of adults as well as children, the stage was set in 1917 for Harvard psychologist Robert Yerkes to persuade the Army to embark on a massive intelligence testing program (Gould, 1981). As the country mobilized for war that summer, Yerkes, Terman, Goddard, and other leading psychometricians quickly put together the now famous Army Alpha and Beta tests. The Alpha exam was written for the general population; the Beta was designed primarily for foreign speaking individuals and illiterates. Although the expressed intent of the tests was to act as a sorting device to identify potential officer candidates, in reality they had little effect on the actual selection and placement of recruits (Hartigan & Wigdor, 1989). The tests were responsible, however, for "putting psychology on the map" (Sokol, 1987) as well as uniting the eugenics and mental testing movements in an effort to demonstrate that mental defectiveness was primarily hereditary.

The results of Yerkes's government-sponsored testing program can be found in the National Academy of Sciences publication, Psychological Examining in the United States Army, published in 1921. In this massive volume, average as well as interval-based scores are reported for all versions of the Alpha and Beta exams across such entities as regiments and companies, branches of the service, length of residence in the United States, place of birth, state of residence, and finally ethnic groups. When comparing the performance of Whites and Blacks, Yerkes asserts that while the "average white mental age" was 13.08 years, the "average mental age for negroes" was a dismal 10.41 years and worse yet, almost 89% of all Blacks that took the test were classified as "moronic" (Yerkes, 1921, p. 791). Even though, as Gould (1983) notes, Yerkes found a .75 correlation between reported years of education and individual test scores, he chose to minimize the potential importance of these findings. Instead, Yerkes insisted that they were "to some extent influenced by educational acquirement, but in the main the soldier's inborn intelligence and not the accidents of environment determines his mental rating" (Chase, 1977, p. …

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