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Public and Catholic School Responses to IQ Testing in the Early 20th Century

by Ann Marie Ryan & Alan Stoskopf - 2008

Background: Between 1910 and 1930, IQ tests were introduced to and institutionalized in American schools. IQ testing represents an important component of the first wave of test-driven educational reform in American history, but surprisingly, there is relatively little research focusing on public educators’ perception of these tests at the time, and even less so for Catholic educators.

Focus of Study and Research Design: In this article, we compare the public and Catholic school discourse that accompanied the introduction of IQ testing during these early and critical years. This historical study analyzes the discourse among educational researchers, administrators, and teachers in these two parallel educational settings through an examination of conference proceedings from the National Education Association and the Catholic Educational Association.

These documents reveal the evolving attitudes toward the role of IQ testing in teaching and learning during the 1910s and 1920s. Our analysis demonstrates significant differences between these two groups in their responses to test-driven reform. We argue that these differences can be attributed to the contrasting ideological stances, institutional practices, and historical experiences of public and Catholic school educators.

Conclusions: We found a greater degree of questioning the purposes of IQ testing among Catholic educators due to a culture of skepticism toward modern notions. This allowed Catholic school educators to debate the validity and value of IQ testing much earlier and for a longer period than their public school counterparts. Critical reexaminations of IQ testing in public schools occurred well after the tests became a standard mechanism for placing students into learning tracks, making it considerably more difficult to advocate for undoing a practice that seemed to be addressing students’ needs. Whether more educational opportunities were really opening up for students because of IQ testing was not seriously questioned by most public school administrators during this era.

IQ1 testing represents an important component of the first wave of test-driven educational reform in American history, but surprisingly, there is relatively little research focusing on educators’ perception of these tests at the time. In this article, we focus on the public and Catholic school discourse that accompanied the introduction of IQ testing in American schools. Our exploration of public and Catholic school responses to IQ testing examines an important but overlooked chapter in the history of American education during the years preceding World War I (WWI) through the 1920s. This time period represents the historical background, introduction, and institutionalization of IQ testing in American schools. We seek to better understand the nature of the discourse among educational researchers, administrators, and teachers in two parallel educational settings.

Both public and Catholic schools experienced rapid expansion and institutional change when IQ tests were being promoted as an efficient and scientific tool for the placement of students into ability learning groups. By focusing on the similarities and differences in the way that public and Catholic school educators accepted, resisted, or remained ambivalent toward IQ testing, we hope to provide fresh insights into how the respective aims of both evolved in the first decades of the 20th century. In this comparison, there are significant differences between these two groups in their responses to test-driven reform. We argue that these differences can be attributed to the contrasting ideological stances, institutional practices, and historical experiences of public and Catholic school educators.

This article is divided into four sections. The first section establishes the historical context for both IQ testing and the forces shaping public and Catholic education in the early 20th century. We briefly discuss how familiar background factors, such as immigration and urbanization, as well as the less familiar, the eugenics movement and public health concerns, influenced public and Catholic school educational priorities. In the second and third sections, we examine how these priorities influenced their respective responses to IQ testing through an examination of national conference proceedings from public and Catholic professional education associations. These documents reveal the evolving attitudes toward the role of IQ testing in teaching and learning during the 1910s and 1920s. The final section focuses on the implications of this analysis for our understanding of this first wave of test-driven reform and raises questions about how educators today understand the meaning and consequences of such reform.


The early 20th century proved to be a critical period in shaping school curricula in the United States. It is a well-documented period of great change in American history. Many historians have written about the optimism of the progressive movement, accelerated industrialization, large-scale urbanization, substantial immigration and migration, the onset of WWI and its accompanying isolationism, and increased protection and management of children through child labor restrictions and compulsory school laws. This confluence of events, movements, and ideas significantly affected both public and Catholic education and their organization.

Urban schools across the United States grappled with the challenges posed by these changes, especially in relation to the fast rising school enrollments caused by massive immigration, internal migrations to cities, and the enforcement of compulsory school laws. The public schools became a way “not only to prepare youth to function in an industrial-urban society, but also to provide a common experience for children of diverse backgrounds so that they could become responsible citizens” (Weiss, 1982, p. xiii).

In the early 20th century, business and civic elites began to assume a greater role in defining what that common experience should be in school districts across the country (Callahan, 1962). Many educational reformers during this period were enamored with the business model of cutting waste and increasing productivity to make an enterprise profitable and efficient. Efficiency became equated with progressiveness and was embodied in the principles of scientific management. Scientific management principles called for precise time and motion studies of employees working at assigned tasks (Callahan; Dawley, 1991) in industry in order to increase efficiency and profitability. The application of scientific management to school settings has been labeled the social efficiency movement by educational historians (Button, 1993; Kliebard, 2004). As in industry, the movement emphasized cost accountability and productivity. Problems, such as overage students in classrooms and school dropouts, were seen in terms of wasteful and inefficient educational outcomes. Social efficiency advocates saw their approach as both scientific and businesslike responses to educational problems.

Intertwined with the social efficiency movement in schools was the campaign for public health. The public health movement addressed Americans’ preoccupation with disease in the early 20th century. Epidemics frequently occurred in different parts of the nation at the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th century. Diseases such as diphtheria, scarlet fever, typhoid, tuberculosis, smallpox, influenza, and syphilis killed millions of Americans in these years (Duffy, 1992; Rosenberg, 1992; Tomes, 1998). At the same time, it was an era of new medical understandings about the nature of infectious diseases. These medical breakthroughs spurred public health measures in American cities during the Progressive Era. Improved sanitation, free inoculations against infectious diseases, and medical inspections of public schools became standard practice (Tomes).

Under the umbrella of public health emerged the eugenics movement, which would have a significant impact on public policies and the beginnings of IQ testing in American schools.

The American eugenics movement presented itself as a progressive health campaign aimed at preserving the racial health of the nation. Eugenics purported to be a scientific theory in the early 20th century, based on the belief that some individuals and “racial” groups were hereditarily predisposed to low intelligence, crime, and poverty (Beckwith, 1993). Although eventually discredited as science, the American eugenics movement influenced major public policies, such as the passage of state sterilization laws and immigration restriction acts (Chase, 1976; Reilly, 1991).

Eugenic supporters, who largely came from educated middle- and upper-class professional backgrounds, constantly used the new science of heredity and microbiology to warn of the dangers of “defective germ plasm”2 (Paul, 1995, p. 84) diluting the vigor of the nation (Beckwith, 1993). By medicalizing social problems, the movement aligned itself with the authority of science and medicine, and at the same time extended that authority into domains that were nonmedical (Pernick, 1997). The public’s concern with disease and health allowed eugenic advocates to racialize their fears by equating disease with the influx of “inferior blood from lesser stocks” (Kevles, 1995, p. 47) into American cities.

To varying degrees, these notions of health, eugenic worth, and efficiency informed the thinking of the experimental psychologists who created the first IQ tests in the United States and disseminated them into American schools (Brown, 1992; Chapman, 1988; Gersh, 1981). This thinking would be reflected in much of the educational discourse among researchers and practitioners in the 1910s and 1920s.


The introduction and institutionalization of IQ tests in American public schools reveals a fascinating discourse among researchers and practitioners over a 20-year period. The way in which educators discussed these tests in journals and conferences provides a window into their thinking, one that is historically situated and deeply embedded in the hopes and fears of that time period. Our analysis of this discourse suggests three overlapping phases. The first phase occurred between 1910 and1918, on the eve of IQ tests entering public schools. It represents the creation of a culture of measurement in American schools. The second phase began with the massive introduction of IQ testing between 1919 and 1924. The third phase, from 1925 to 1930, demonstrates the institutionalization of tests in American public school life.

Because this discourse on IQ testing transpired in many journals, newsletters, and conferences, we have chosen to limit our analysis to one arena, the National Education Association (NEA) Annual Conference Proceedings. The transcripts from these proceedings represent a rich depository of the thought and discussion among educational researchers, central administrators, principals, guidance counselors, and, occasionally, teachers. One reads in these proceedings many of the educational psychologists who developed and promoted the tests, along with their principal clients, school administrators, and teachers, who used them with their respective school populations. Although hardly a comprehensive review of the vast literature of the time period, one nonetheless can see how the dominant patterns of discourse among public school educators developed during these three phases.


As school enrollments skyrocketed in the 1910s (Urban & Wagoner, 2003), school officials faced new challenges. Repeated references were made to the problems of “retardation” (overage children in grades). Cast in terms of efficiency and health, many called for the application of new scientific measures to respond to what was perceived to be a growing crisis.

The proceedings of the 1910 NEA conference sounded the warnings about this challenge. One of the resolutions at the conference stated, “The problem of retardation in our schools demands our careful consideration. Superintendents should emphasize all means which will reduce the annual retardation without sacrificing the efficiency of the work” (Blewett, 1910, p. 148). Throughout the proceedings, members called for a more scientific and progressive approach to identifying and measuring retardation so that teachers could address the many individual differences among a changing school population. These differences began to be articulated in terms of those who were seen as “dullards” or mentally deficient, those who were gifted, and those who were considered normal. At this point, most attention was focused on the “subnormal student,” as indicated in the remarks of the superintendent from the Baltimore Public Schools at the 1910 conference.

Statistics are available showing how many subnormal children there are among every thousand, but we do not know how many gifted children there are among every one thousand. We do not know because we are not looking for them. Under the operation of school-attendance laws, instead of getting rid of the dullards and laggards, as we too often formerly did, we are undertaking to hold and teach them. . .  Adherence to fixed and unchangeable courses of study and to inflexible schemes of classification fall far short of furnishing equal opportunity to all in our schools. (Van Sickle, 1910, pp.156–157)

The language in the above passage reflects the rhetoric of both burden and obligation. On the one hand, schools were saddled with a problem of “subnormal” students, but at the same time, schools were not providing them with an equal opportunity to succeed. Better classification systems were called for to serve all children. These themes would continue to recur throughout the 1910s and would lay the groundwork for a culture of measurement.

By the 1910s, the first standardized tests had been introduced into American public schools. These performance-based, or achievement, tests attempted to measure progress in subjects as varied as arithmetic, reading, spelling, and handwriting (Lincoln, 1924). They served as the first tests created in the educational psychology community for public schools. The tests aimed to provide norms and averages of performance for school districts. Although greeted by central administrators as a scientific advance over the guesswork of teacher judgment, these tests did not attempt to measure capacity or to predict how a student would achieve in the future. Something more precise was needed for classification, especially of the school “laggard” who was, in the parlance of the time, “clogging the educational machinery of our schools” (Terman, 1912, p. 136).

It was in this context that the first mention and experimental use of IQ testing occurred in the public schools. Known as mental tests, or the Binet test (after French psychologist Alfred Binet), they were first thought of and promoted to American school audiences by experimental psychologists as a means for detecting the “dullard or feebleminded” and removing them from mainstream classes. This was evidenced in the 1915 proceedings of the NEA. In a roundtable discussion of “backward” children by a panel of psychologists and school administrators, one superintendent said that

the application of . . . the Binet-Simon and other tests will disclose causes not otherwise apparent, such as a  . . . bad mental deficiency that if not discovered and treated may degenerate into feeble-mindedness. . . Every plan for the treatment of backward pupils shows the need of individual study and individual treatment for all pupils. (Baylor, 1915, p. 446)

The recommendation employed the language of treatment and diagnosis. At this time, urban public schools were establishing psychological clinics in schools to begin to assess the mental health and aptitude of students. Like the school clinics set up for screening tuberculosis and other contagious diseases, there were now clinics focusing on measuring the individual differences in the mentality of students (Burnham, 1924).

Numerous discussions occurred at these early NEA conferences on the promise of such clinics to aid in the problem of screening for mental deficiency and the role that the new IQ test might play in that process. The first creators of the IQ test in the United States began to address school audiences at NEA conventions, using the language of technical expertise and authority to promote a new test of mental capacity. Henry Goddard laid out the challenge to school officials in a paper delivered at the 1910 conference:

First, the public school can do a service to society second to none by taking care of this group of children who would otherwise be uncared for and would become a burden. . .

These children are the dullards and backward children that are found in the public school system, and are being ruined by our present system of trying to make them normal. . .  If all are taken at once as they come into the system, they may be graded somewhat according to mental ability. This gradation can be determined by the use of the tests now used for measuring intelligence, notably the Binet tests published in 1908. (pp. 918–919)

Lewis Terman at Stanford University extended Goddard’s work and began piloting IQ tests among wider school populations in 1915 and 1916. At the NEA annual meeting in Oakland, California, Terman delivered a paper that anticipated the testing revolution that would occur after WWI. He unveiled to a public school audience for the first time his revised version of the Binet intelligence test, which claimed to distinguish between students who were “retarded, normal, and superior” in intelligence. Presenting his findings of 1,000 children he tested in the Palo Alto school district, Terman found a surprising number of students who had low mental ages for the grades they were assigned. Terman (1915) argued,

Comparison of grade status by mental age and chronological age reveals the striking fact that, on the whole, grade location of school children does not fit their mental age much better than it fits their chronological age. . . . Plainly the efforts made at school grading fail to provide for groups of children of homogenous mental ability.

Instead of developing a differentiated course of study, which would allow dull children to make steady progress, we have too often promoted them to tasks, which for them are impossible of accomplishment. . . The subnormals are in danger of overpressure; the supernormals of under pressure. In the interest of both groups, mental hygiene demands that research be undertaken more definitely what performances may rightly be expected. (pp. 948, 951)

Terman, along with Goddard and Robert Yerkes, would be two of the principal creators of IQ tests used on 1.7 million army recruits in 1917 (Gould, 1996). The publicity given to these tests would help Terman realize the vision he articulated in the above passage.


After World War I, IQ tests were introduced into American public schools on a massive scale. The publicity in the popular press and educational journals given to the seeming success of the army IQ testing program legitimated what previously had been a pilot program of individual testing of students suspected of “retardation.” Now, wholesale group testing across school districts began. For many, the reports that psychologists had devised Alpha and Beta IQ tests to identify feebleminded, average, and superior army recruits seemed to have a ready-made application to schools. Later, in the 1920s, criticisms mounted about the technical accuracy and cultural biases inherent in the Army tests, but in these early years, the new IQ test seemed to be the scientific solution to a growing school problem (Marks, 1976–1977).

The discussions of the 1920 NEA conference in Salt Lake City reflected this new embrace of the tests. The director of bureau and guidance in the Oakland Public Schools pointed to the wider role that IQ testing would play in his and other school districts across the nation.

It is true mental testing is an essential factor in the study and guidance of all other types of individuals. The use of intelligence tests in the classification and placement of men in the army is well known to most people now. . . These tests have been modified and adapted or new tests have been workt [sic] out on similar lines for use in schools. Now thousands of school children are being tested and studied annually by these group tests. . . . Democracy implies equality of opportunity. This should mean that every child in our schools should have the opportunity to take that amount of mental development, which his capacity permits. We should make use of every available means to adapt our education to the needs of all children from the very first day they enter school. (Dickson, 1920, pp. 196–198)

This rhetoric echoed much of the discourse and practice that occurred during this phase of IQ test adoption in the public schools. The writer represented a new wave of administrators who directed bureaus of research and test administration, which urban school districts established before and after the war (Williams, 1986). These bureaus signified the schools’ institutional receptivity to testing and measuring individual differences among their student population.

The passage also suggested that the tests provided a means to help sort and differentiate among a variety of learners. Vocational education and the junior high school emerged in the 1910s (Cuban 1992; Fass, 1989) as institutional attempts to classify students according to their perceived interests and natural capacities. IQ tests became a new instrument that promised to do this efficiently and objectively within these new institutional structures.

Furthermore, educators invoked the rhetoric of democracy and equal opportunity and placed it alongside the promotion of IQ testing during this second phase. Testing was seen as a means to address the needs of the individual child and allow each to advance according to his or her natural capacities. For urban school district administrators, it became more a matter of determining which tests appeared most reliable and valid in placing students into learning tracks, not whether one would use the tests. Administrators had the dilemma of choosing one of the many IQ tests promoted and sold to school districts in the early 1920s, including the Terman, Otis, Haggerty, Pintner, and Thorndike tests, among scores of others (Gersh, 1981).

By the end of 1923, a consensus emerged among most urban public school administrators that efficient and democratic schools needed IQ testing to provide the best educational opportunities for all their students. Lewis Terman expressed this in a paper delivered at the 1923 NEA conference.

The abandonment of the single-track, pre-high school curriculum is in fact the first necessary step toward educational democracy. The single track is a straight jacket which dwarfs the mental development of the inferior as well as the gifted. The educational sentimentalists who defend it [the single track], who fear mental tests and ignore or deny individual differences, are of a class with those who stake their life on a Coué formula, fear doctors and deny the actuality of disease. (pp. 157–158)


By 1930, most urban school districts were using IQ tests to guide the placement and classification of students into ability-based learning tracks (Hildreth, 1933). To varying degrees, districts relied on a combination of teacher judgment and IQ test scores supplemented by guidance counselor recommendations. This system largely remained in place until the 1960s.

It was during the period from 1925 to 1930 that this process was generally institutionalized in public school districts across the nation. In reading the NEA conference papers and discussions of this time, a new age seemed to have arrived for public school systems. Frank Ballou, the superintendent of the Washington, D.C., public schools, articulated this message at the Indianapolis meeting of 1925.

The quarter of a century ending this year of 1925 will stand out in the history of education as an epoch of remarkable development in the science of education. . .   In the earlier period our aims were philosophical and idealistic, while in this day and generation our aims are scientific. Scientific investigation has become the recognized basis for the establishment of our educational procedures and practices.

The educational survey, the establishment of departments of educational research, and the measurement of educational results, and the conducting of intelligence tests . . . are all evidences of the change in educational thinking.

Whatever may be their limitations, the results secured from the application of intelligence tests to school children give more accurate, more definite and more valuable information that has heretofore been available to indicate the educational capacity and the educational needs of school children. (p. 12)

Ballou’s assessment of the value of IQ testing was translated into routine practice throughout school districts.

The NEA proceedings in the latter years of the 1920s tended to highlight the various ways that IQ testing was used to place all children, not just those deemed to be retarded, into ability-based learning groups. For example, the superintendent of the Trinidad, Colorado, school district proudly stated at the 1926 NEA conference,

If individual differences are to be adequately provided for . . . we must provide a course of study for those of less than average ability . . . we must also enrich the curriculum for the brilliant students.

The schools of Trinidad were reorganized four years ago with intelligence as the basis of all classifications. From the kindergarten through the high school there are three distinct tracks. Children were assigned to these tracks on the basis of IQ, with mental age the basis of assignment to grades. (Corning, 1926, pp. 645–646)

The superintendent of Los Angeles Schools stated in 1927 at the NEA conference that “the introduction of intelligence and standard educational tests, which more accurately measure the capabilities and accomplishments of children, have greatly facilitated newer groupings, as has the use of the counselor service to aid the over-busy principal in determining upon a desirable classification” (Dorsey, 1927, p. 272). These types of statements were a familiar refrain at the annual NEA conferences and came from all parts of the country.

It is interesting to note as public school systems began to routinize the use of IQ testing in schools, there was relatively little recorded dissent among school educators during any of the three phases. At the same time, in the late 1920s, a more vocal minority of African American and White psychologists questioned some of the methods and interpretations of intellectual capacity among different ethnic groups (Guthrie, 1998). In addition, the notion that intelligence was relatively fixed once a person reached the age of 16 was called into question. These dissents mounted in the 1930s (Chapman, 1988).

Yet the expressions of dissent among school practitioners, as evidenced in the proceedings of the NEA from 1910 to 1930, were few in number. There were voices of administrators who questioned the wisdom of relying solely on the IQ test for classifying students. Rarely, though, does one read that the tests might be so problematic that they should not be used for mass grouping purposes. In 1922, one Boston elementary school principal stated, “In my view the judgment of a fair-minded, experienced teacher . . . is a safer basis to be used in grouping pupils for next year’s work than the results of intelligence tests” (Owen, 1922, p. 837). This same principal, however, admitted that IQ tests had become so widely used in the system that the best that could be hoped for was their use in conjunction with teacher report cards.

Generally, the NEA proceedings revealed a widespread pattern of initial interest, followed by enthusiastic introduction, and eventually a drive toward institutionalization across school districts. Throughout all three phases expert, as well as practitioner, supported the use of IQ tests to address the individual differences of a growing and diverse student population, all the time invoking the language of scientific authority and progressive innovation.


Critical to the response to IQ testing by Catholic educators was the resistance to the eugenics movement by Catholics in general. In the early 20th century, American Catholics represented a culturally and economically diverse group, with a large number of immigrants among them. As a result, they often became the target of eugenic policies such as immigration restriction, sterilization, and birth control programs (Leon, 2004). Catholics opposed eugenics not only because it targeted a large number of their constituents but also because it collided with their fundamental belief in natural or divine law, which asserted the rights of individuals and society as granted by God rather than the state (Leon; Rosen, 2004). In addition to combating eugenics on ideological grounds, publications such as Catholic World and America challenged the “science” of eugenics (Leon). Although most Catholics opposed eugenics, some found its aim of improving society admirable, while objecting to its means for reaching that goal (Rosen). Some even made the case for a Catholic form of “positive” eugenics, arguing that through Christian morals, society could make such improvements; however, this limited interest and support all but disappeared by the 1930s (Leon; Rosen).

Catholics resisted extreme eugenic notions and remained skeptical of modernism in general, an ideology rooted in rational scientific understandings and liberal democratic institutions. This resistance played out in many ways, but perhaps most heatedly over the issue of the role of the state in the lives of its citizens. This fear of state intervention increased with the growth of Catholic schooling and the greater role of states in regulating private education.

During the 1910s, prior to WWI, standardization and church-state relations dominated Catholic school discourse at the CEA annual meetings. In the early 1920s, these discussions continued but also included rich exchanges on the values and soundness of IQ testing. By the mid to late 1920s, the discourse about IQ dissipated, but the questions and concerns over both standardization and testing continued to surface in related issues like vocational education. As with public schools, the discourse on IQ testing by Catholic educators took place in a range of publications, including the Catholic School Journal, Catholic Educational Review, and the Catholic Educational Association Bulletin.

In this examination, we focus our attention on the discourse contained in the proceedings of the CEA, where vigorous debates over IQ testing and the related issues of standardization and vocational education transpired. The CEA provides a parallel organization to the NEA, and therefore a powerful way to compare the discourse around IQ testing in these different educational contexts in the United States.

In 1930, almost 2.5 million children attended Catholic schools in the United States, representing nearly 9% of the total elementary and secondary school enrollment (McCluskey, 1969). This growth of Catholic schools led to significant efforts to increase coherence and organization of Catholic schooling during the early 20th century. The need to organize their educational efforts often stemmed from a desire to compete successfully with public schools. In 1904, Catholics founded the CEA, later renamed the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) in 1927, to support their growing number of schools and to provide ways to address the critical issues facing those schools (Veverka, 1988). Catholics engaged in institutional cooperation but remained staunchly opposed to standardizing their schools, especially along secular lines.

The opposition to standardization increased in the mid 1910s when Catholic secondary schools grew in number. Rather than dioceses, Catholic religious orders and congregations often operated these secondary schools. As Catholic high schools came on to the educational scene, they were met with state regulations and accreditation requirements from professional associations like the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools in the Midwest and its regional counterparts throughout the country. Each of these entities concerned itself with establishing standards in higher education to improve the quality of education and, more important, to standardize the preparation of secondary students and to provide for a smooth articulation between high schools and colleges. The increased relationship between public and Catholic institutions and the need to address and conform to particular standards made for contentious debates at the CEA’s annual meetings. Catholic educators, almost exclusively members of male and female religious orders and congregations, struggled to develop reasoned and coherent responses to the challenge of balancing autonomy and complying with state regulations. These debates over standardization were critical to later debates focused on IQ testing.


In 1911, Reverend James F. Green, the president of St. Rita College, an all-boys high school in Chicago, claimed that adopting the standards of professional associations and state universities nullified the necessity of Catholic education. He characterized the actions of those priests making “Catholic schools a tail to the kite of some sectarian or undenominational institution of learning, against the firm attitude of the Church” as “deplorable” (p. 171). Green’s words reflected the general position of Catholic educational leaders at this time. Catholics had set out to establish a separate system of schools and argued that those schools differed from public schools by their infusion of Catholic teachings across subject matter. Accepting secular standards seemed to diminish that argument, but this stance would be challenged, and by the mid 1910s, Catholic schools increasingly faced the need to meet state standards. Monsignor P. R. McDevitt, the superintendent of parish schools in Philadelphia, acknowledged this reality in 1915.

To-day, signs are not wanting which indicate a tendency on the part of the State, not indeed to destroy liberty of teaching, but to modify the civil authority’s passive or indifferent attitude towards private schools, to extend its jurisdiction in matters educational, and to bring it to bear more fully upon private schools and take away some of the so-called privileges these schools enjoy. (p. 82)

The rejection of secular standards and resistance to state regulation softened as a result of WWI. The war tested the patriotism of Catholics and other minority groups in the United States. The broader public watched carefully to see that ethnic Catholics moved toward assimilating into American society rather than remaining isolated and on the margins. Catholic schools had to address the need to educate Catholic Americans, not only Catholics. Succumbing to accreditation by outside professional agencies and complying with state regulations became a visible way of proving that.

At the annual meetings of the CEA during WWI, the discourse around standardization shifted to an accommodation of them, rather than outright resistance. Reverend Patrick J. McCormick (1917), a professor of education at the Catholic University of America, argued, “In one form or another the educational standard is as old as the history of education itself. Whenever education became a systematic process, even in primitive times, it was regulated by a standard” (p. 70). He then advocated for members of the CEA to consider developing their own standards that “meet the best of the secular requirements and do even more” (p. 82). McCormick’s call for Catholic educational standards were never realized for secondary schools; rather, the CEA opted for having schools accredited by associations, state boards of education, and universities as required or as they saw fit.

“The church schools had to operate within a universe of problems common to Catholic and secular schools and one in which more often than not these problems had first been addressed by the public schools” (Fass, 1989, p. 193). Catholic schools often made decisions based less on philosophical or theological grounds and more so on pragmatic ones. Although at odds with many of the requirements that states imposed on them, Catholic schools complied to remain viable. In 1918, Mother Reginald, identified as a “Sister of the Presentation,” noted that accreditation by outside agencies kept Catholic students in Catholic schools (Sister of the Presentation, 1918). She believed that accreditation resulted in increased confidence on the part of parents because it offered a tangible way to measure the quality of a school.

They are assured that by sending their children to Catholic schools they secure for them not only a thorough religious training, but as efficient an instruction in secular studies as they can receive in any other school . . . it shows that the school . . . is part of a great body of intellectual activity whose inspiration radiates to all parts of the vast educational system of the State. (pp. 563–564)

In her statement, Mother Reginald placed Catholic schools within the wider context of schooling in the United States. With the close of the war and the reluctant acceptance of secular standards, Catholic educators now found themselves more a part of, than apart from, the professional education community.

Debating Testing and Measurement in the 1920s

As public school educators introduced IQ testing into schools on a larger scale, Catholic educators continued to discuss the merits of standardization, but this discourse began to incorporate new elements, including testing, in 1921. In a paper presentation, Reverend Austin G. Schmidt of the University of Detroit opposed common standards but suggested that Catholics comply with them for practical purposes. He then proposed that “the thing to standardize is the product, not the process” (Schmidt, 1921, p. 79). He argued that a “graduate of an accredited school must have attained a certain power in certain lines of endeavor, the extent of which power can be expressed in terms of percentage in model examination questions, or, if you prefer, in terms of scores in standard educational and intelligence tests” (p. 80). With this, Reverend Schmidt voiced support for testing and suggested that it offered a way to keep schools accountable. It seemed a reasonable exchange, academic freedom with a measure of accountability. In response to Reverend Schmidt, Reverend F. J. Walsh (1921) took issue with the underlying assumptions of the relatively new field of measurement. He questioned the ability of a single test to measure the performance of an individual, let alone an institution.

The standardizing agencies have aimed at establishing something of this kind in all departments of instruction. They seek tests which will determine precisely just what can be expected of any year’s work in grade school, high school or college. The hope is by such means to raise every institution to a certain minimum or lowest level of recognition. There is no genuine philosophy, back of this. There is no dead level for human nature, and there can be no absolute requirements for culture, or the character of an educated lady or gentleman. Degrees of education are among those moral and social elements which do not subject themselves to the criteria of the exact analyst. The intricate and various devices of which the human mind will make use in its effort to perfect itself, defy measurement by microscope or verniet. (p. 83)

At the same conference in 1921, Reverend John A. O’Brien, director of the Columbus Foundation at the University of Illinois, presented a paper on “The Pedagogical Value of Educational Measurements.” In it he explained that “the ultimate purpose of standardized tests, and measurements is to improve the quality of the teaching, thereby increasing the effectiveness of educational effort” (p. 257). He outlined a cogent argument in favor of standardized tests but asserted the importance of interpreting and using the results of the test to inform instruction.

If teachers administer standardized tests, measure the pupil’s mastery of the subject, discover the points of weakness and of strength, carefully graph the results and stop there, they are missing the real purpose of modern standardized tests. That purpose is to guide the teacher in the formulation of remedial instruction. (p. 257)

Unlike the presenters at the NEA, Catholics did not have psychologists purporting the advantages of testing. Instead of hearing from “experts” on testing, Catholic educators from higher education and those from elementary and secondary institutions voiced their critique of this movement and of the tests. In 1922, Brother John A. Waldron moved the discourse around testing further from standards and standardized testing and closer to a focus on IQ testing. He argued for a pragmatic approach to intelligence testing and against what he characterized as “extreme.”

Many of these testers are inclined to a fatalistic elimination of the pupil at successive stages, based on the assumption that education is wasted when the maximum capacity of native intelligence has been reached. They make practically no allowance for development of native intelligence due to environment and widened experience which goes with the increase of age, social, civic, education, occupational and religious impressions and suggestions. (pp. 217–218)

Brother Waldron, like other Catholic educators wrestling with the value of intelligence testing, struggled with its wholesale indictment of children without consideration for environmental, and, more important, spiritual dimensions. Although he criticized radical proponents of testing, he characterized more balanced ones as “those who consider that the tests and examinations under discussion to-day are only the present status or stage of a constant process of developments in the educational and spiritual activities which is constantly going on in every field of human endeavor” (pp. 217–218).

The responses to Brother Waldron urged caution in the use of such measurements. Reverend Joseph A. Dunney (1922) warned of the limitations of testing.

The wise teacher will never embark on her teaching with the mere ideas of having the class measure up to the test. Such a view betrays a serious flaw in theory and motive of teaching. For tests can and may easily become an intolerable hindrance to teaching if we are to judge seen results as the best results. (p. 228)

Catholics had a vested interest in fending off the introduction of testing as the sole measure of performance, because doing so could question the teaching of religion. “A teacher should remember that while many things taught in the classroom are examinable, and thus measurable in a sense, many more are immeasurable, they are the things that matter most, for example, religion” (Dunney, 1922, p. 228). He praised Brother Waldron for addressing

how these tests narrow the field of the child’s vision, cramp where they do not neglect, important faculties. Never can we do that, never forget that we are dealing with more than measurable human products; we are dealing with immortal souls. Our duty is not merely to instruct but to educate. (p. 229)

Catholic education purported to encompass more than the development of cognitive intelligence; it aimed to develop the spiritual life of children as well.

In another response to Brother Waldron, Brother Aubert (1922) noted that “the Intelligence Section of the American Army was not a bit afraid of its findings, for, according to its report, it proved that forty-seven per cent of us are morons, leaving room for one wag to raise the question, ‘Did the remaining fifty-three per cent give the tests?’” (p. 231). Brother Aubert’s humor and candor demonstrated the skepticism that many Catholic educators held about intelligence testing. He warned against jumping too quickly into the testing “fad” created by WWI and insisted that his response should not brand him a reactionary.

Besides criticizing intelligence testing for its narrowness, some rigorously challenged its philosophical foundations. In 1923, Reverend Francis P. Donnelly presented a paper on “The Philosophic Basis of Mental Tests.” He began the essay with a vivid picture of the professionalization movement of the era: “Luckily the baby does not for see [sic] the army of specialists facing it as it enters life, else all the adrenalin in the world could not make its benumbed heart function and start bravely upon its beat of life” (p. 167). He quickly followed with a well-reasoned critique of mental testing and its vulnerabilities: “Every mental tester assumes some definition or other of intelligence and selects characteristic actions which seem to him the peculiar and adequate expression of that intelligence. In that assumed definition of intelligence lies a fertile source of fallacies” (p. 169). Not only did he challenge the definitions used by mental tests, but he also took issue with its reliance on averages and its lack of attention to environmental conditions. Although critical of mental testing, Reverend Donnelly summed up his paper by identifying some of its benefits. These included the rigorous study of examinations to improve their use in classrooms; development of group examinations to assist overburdened teachers; emphasis on performance rather than passive learning; emphasis on the use of language; and the ability to compare a whole class with an average—cautioning against comparing individuals with an average. Donnelly’s analysis left him as both a critic and an advocate of mental testing. His rigorous examination of the methods of psychologists demonstrated the serious influence that this movement had on Catholic educators, and the response to his critique offered further evidence of that.

The respondent to Reverend Donnelly’s paper was identified only as an “Ursuline Sister of Cleveland.” This educator saw pragmatic value in using mental tests. She advanced the idea that testing helped students measure up to their own possibilities and allowed them to participate effectively in society (Ursuline Sister, 1923, p. 181). She endorsed the healthy skepticism outlined by Reverend Donnelly and others but asserted that the day of extremes in the realm of mental testing was coming to an end.

There are comparatively few now who deny that there is any benefit to be derived from the use of tests. During the past year or so there has been a notable decrease in the number of tests published. From this and from other sources it is apparent that students of intelligence and achievement tests are busying themselves examining the basic principles on which tests are constructed, the limitations and opportunities for improvement of existing scales and a better definition of the powers of the mind to be measured. (p. 179)

She urged her fellow conferees to distinguish between the underlying principles of mental tests and the interpretation of their results. She acknowledged the potential misuse of testing by calling attention to the long-term effects that tests could have on a child.

The mistakes that the psychological examiners made in the Army in classifying adult men for temporary service was not as serious an injustice to the victims of the classifying of immature boys and girls with the assumption that the assignments made will hold for life. There is too loose a reasoning about the results of tests, too exaggerated a confidence in their accuracy. (pp. 179–180)

In her remaining comments, she acknowledged that mental tests only measured one aspect of an individual and argued that there was a need to develop means for measuring other areas of human experience. She accused Catholic educators of relegating intelligence testing “to a limbo of oblivion” and called for Catholics to conduct research on the topic themselves. Finally, she claimed that testing may help Catholic educators assist students in finding their gifts and talents so that they me be of “effective service” to the common welfare (p. 181). Her final plea resonated with the democratic rhetoric used in public school discourse to defend the use of testing as a tool to make each child an effective citizen.

The presentations focused on mental testing at the CEA annual meetings dissipated after

1923; however, some of the arguments used against them in earlier years found their way into papers on other topics. In 1925, Reverend Donnelly delivered another paper, this time arguing against vocational training. He examined how vocational training, like mental testing, placed limits on human potential.

I believe we are born to be what we will to be, and I attribute no infallibility to Simon-Binet and their numberless followers who by their tests predestine children to intellectual damnation. The greatest part of modern education is sadly lacking in the matter of will-training. The modern psychologist denies or keeps a respectful silence about free will; that would be to admit a soul, and the soul is the bugbear of most modern philosophers. (p. 55)

Reverend Donnelly argued that the use of testing to track students into vocational programs did not allow children to exercise their free will. He urged fellow educators to “delay . . . entrance into the trades as long as possible; permit the trades then only for those who will or must enter trades” (p. 56). As with earlier educational movements, this had the potential of disproportionately affecting the Catholic Church and its large immigrant constituency.

The discourse concerning standards and mental testing was present in the CEA/NCEA proceedings, but it also appeared in Catholic educational journals geared toward classroom teachers. In these publications, there seemed to be less of a debate and a more pragmatic acceptance of mental testing. Those in favor of testing argued that it better served the child but also cautioned that schools needed to serve the whole child and be mindful of the inherent “goodness” of children. Catholics continued to question the value of IQ testing and at the same time some began to institute it in their schools. Indeed, like many other educational movements, including standardization and accreditation, Catholic schools largely adopted such practices based on their local context. Although 52% of Catholic high schools surveyed in 1949 acknowledged using IQ tests for admissions and placement, it still left a large number not using such instruments (Fass, 1989). The rigorous debates over testing and standards subsided in the late 1920s and early 1930s as Catholic schools became more accountable to state and regional authorities. Some have argued that Catholic schools readily embraced IQ testing (Fass), but these early debates at the CEA annual meeting suggested a more complicated and gradual move toward acceptance of these tests.

In resisting state intervention and secular ideas of education, Catholics were well positioned to problematize the use and underlying assumptions of IQ testing. Rather than developing such tests, Catholics were largely in receipt of them, providing an opportunity to interrogate them more closely out of their general suspicion of secular educational movements. Catholics generally believed in philosophical and theological premises over modern scientific ones; therefore, IQ tests represented all that was modern and required thorough examination. Defining a child by IQ alone seemed too limited to most Catholic educators. For Catholics, IQ testing only told part of the story while it ignored the environmental and, more important, spiritual dimensions of human development. IQ tests promised proper classification, but to many Catholics in the 1920s, this meant placing limits on human potential and a denial of free will. Catholics saw this as dangerous in that they were focused on using education as a means to make Catholics more socially mobile.

The CEA proceedings from the 1910s and 1920s offer a glimpse into the rich debates that Catholic educators engaged in over IQ testing. Although many Catholic schools eventually integrated the use of IQ testing into their educational practices, this discourse questioning the assumptions and use of IQ testing may have prevented the wholesale institutionalization of it in Catholic schools.


Our overview of the discourse in public and Catholic school conference proceedings opens up new ways to think about how educators understood IQ testing in the early 20th century. It also raises important questions that deserve further research by scholars in the history of education.

The three phases of IQ test adoption for the public schools demonstrate how the hopes and fears generated in the wider society became refracted through the promise of IQ testing. In all three phases, a preliminary analysis of the NEA proceedings strongly suggests that the rhetoric of science and democracy became a powerfully persuasive rationale for both administrators and teachers.

During the early 20th century, public school educators desperately searched for ways to address the diverse learning needs of a changing school population. From their perspective, there was little time to thoroughly debate the relative strengths and weaknesses of this new educational reform. Instead, the assurances of testing experts such as Goddard, Terman, and Thorndike persuaded them of the efficacy of the new test. These experts offered school practitioners the chance to be partners in a bold new scientific program of educational reform—a reform that would efficiently provide opportunities for all students in keeping with the promise of American democracy.

The discourse of the NEA proceedings suggested that the rhetoric of science and democratic opportunity served to resolve any contradictions in the consequences of reform driven by IQ tests. The cultural assumptions embedded in the IQ tests of this era, the problematic aspects of ability grouping, and the lack of teacher input into the creation and implementation of the tests were largely kept at bay during the 1910s and the 1920s. Whatever critiques existed during this time never gained any kind of ideological or institutional support on a national level. In subsequent years this changed, but only after IQ testing had helped to embed such practices as tracking, and the dominance of externally based assessment systems for urban public school systems.

In contrast to public educators, the discourse among Catholics reflected active questioning of IQ testing and its educational implications for children in the early 1920s. Even while entertaining its advantages, they carefully documented their concerns over its significant shortcomings. The debates among them generally focused on problematizing the tests and their implications for Catholic education, specifically Catholic students. Being largely an immigrant group, or at least one with close immigrant ties, made suspicion of IQ testing an important issue for Catholic educators. Catholic children in public schools felt the affects of IQ testing and the limitations that it imposed on their educational aspirations; therefore, Catholic educators needed to grapple with whether Catholic schools would engage in or reject similar practices. At the same time, dealing with large immigrant populations also served as one of the key attractions to IQ testing on the part of Catholic educators. Pragmatic concerns and the efficiency promised by IQ testing sometimes outweighed philosophical opposition to it.

The CEA proceedings demonstrate the range of opinions among Catholic educators on IQ testing in the 1920s, but it leaves us to question why that debate did not continue throughout the late 1920s. As a result, it also raises questions as to why particular educators were more vigorous than others in their opposition to or support of IQ testing. It is possible that the local context of each, including his or her particular religious order or congregation, affected his or her stance on the matter. The importance of the local context in Catholic education cannot be underestimated. Because each diocese varied in its size and level of organization, there was a great deal of variation in Catholic schooling. This diversity within Catholic education may have contributed significantly to the uneven adoption of IQ testing even after the major debates questioning its efficacy seemed to have been resolved.

The responses of public and Catholic school educators to IQ testing reveal some intriguing differences between how each group encountered this early example of test driven reform. We believe that these differences can be understood by contrasting the ideological stances, institutional practices, and historical experiences of public school educators with those of Catholic school educators.

The ideological stances of public and Catholic schooling were profoundly different. Public school educators from varied perspectives embraced the idea of modern and scientific solutions to social problems. IQ tests were created and introduced into public schools during the Progressive Age, during which a premium was put on any reform that could apply rational and efficient methods to solving complex social problems. At least initially, this stance allowed administrators and teachers who subscribed to a variety of pedagogical theories to unite behind a scientific reform. It was a reform that seemed to have the clinical and technical precision of medicine in diagnosing such problems as school dropouts and overage students in lower grades.

Ideologically, Catholics held strong suspicions of the “modern” and scientific solutions to social problems. There was much more of a self-conscious need to reconcile any educational intervention with a moral and spiritual framework before Catholics could incorporate it into daily school practice. It is not so surprising that IQ testing would generate a great deal of debate if this reform seemed to ignore or undermine the belief in the spiritual worth of a child.

Institutional practices between public and Catholic schooling also differed. For public schools, the establishment of large centralized school bureaucracies, employment of vocational guidance counselors, and the creation of research bureaus in urban school systems had already occurred before IQ testing had entered most schools. These structures facilitated the implementation of a culture of measurement that was taking place in the 1910s. Experimental psychology, with its emphasis on standardized and quantitatively based research procedures, easily entered into the institutional lifeblood of the public schools. School surveys, performance-based achievement tests and, finally, IQ testing had the structures already in place to facilitate rapid implementation of a reform that had the imprimatur of expert, scientific research.

These structures were not in place, at least not to the same degree or with the same purpose, in Catholic schools. The debates around accreditation, standardization, and then testing made Catholic educators wary of translating research into school practice. The ideological and practical implications of such practices could not be ignored. Because of this, there was a delay in the acceptance of, and a more diminished role for, the “modern guidance counselor” who eagerly embraced the use of IQ tests for placing students into varied learning groups. It is not that Catholics did not adopt some of these institutional practices that had become commonplace in the public schools; it was more that they were mitigated by other Catholic institutional structures that emphasized educational priorities very different from IQ testing. Although some Catholic high schools eventually turned to IQ testing in the 1940s and 1950s for admissions purposes, most Catholic high schools did not do so during the early 20th century. The motto of Catholic educators, coined at the Third Plenary Council in 1884, was, “Every Catholic boy and girl must attend a Catholic School” (Veverka, 1988, p. 4). In the late 19th century, this phrase focused on elementary education, but with the promise of social mobility through education, the goal focused on moving as many Catholic children as possible into Catholic high schools. Using IQ testing to limit enrollment seemed counterproductive to the larger goal of advancing Catholics as a group.

Finally, the role of historical experience meant something different in the context of IQ testing. As already noted, public and Catholic schools in urban areas were experiencing enrollment increases due in large part to immigration and migration. Although both had to deal with new populations, many of those immigrants were Catholic. Equally important was the fact that Italian, Polish, Russian, and Hungarian immigrants often were targets of eugenic and nativist fears and legislation. The first test creators eagerly embraced the ideology of racial differences and hereditarian determinism. For example, Goddard and Terman did not question how their own eugenic assumptions might influence their interpretation of IQ test scores, yet they had no problem questioning the intellectual potential of new and different populations entering the public schools. These beliefs were not lost on Catholic educators. They did not so easily accept the claim of scientific objectivity by the first IQ test promoters.

Putting these three factors together, we see a much greater degree of ambivalence and questioning of the purposes of IQ testing among Catholic educators. In this respect, there was a culture of skepticism toward the modern that allowed Catholic school educators to debate and problematize IQ testing much earlier and for a longer period than their public school counterparts. By the time a more critical reexamination of IQ testing in public schools occurred, the tests were now a fixture in helping to place students into different learning tracks. This made it much more difficult to undo a practice that seemed to be working so well. After all, there were fewer dropouts, and teaching and learning seemed more streamlined. The question of whether students were staying in courses longer and whether more educational opportunities were really opening up for students because of IQ testing was not seriously questioned by most public school administrators during this era.

The conclusions we offer are more suggestive than definitive. They serve to raise important questions for further research. They include the following: Did these patterns of difference toward IQ testing in public and Catholic education continue in the post WWII years? Do the varied responses to IQ testing in the first example of test-driven reform have similar analogies today in public school and Catholic school responses to high-stakes testing? How does the critical discourse among educators at all levels affect the way that an outside educational reform is accepted, resisted, or adapted at the school and school district levels? How do responses to educational reforms by religious, ethnic, and other minorities both within and outside public education shed light on the dominant discourse of those reform efforts?

Surely, other questions can be raised from our comparative analysis of public school and Catholic school responses to IQ testing in the early 20th century. It is an area of research that promises to add much to our understanding of the history of American education and its implications for today’s practices.


1 German psychologist William Stern created the term intelligence quotient in 1912. Stern believed that dividing the “mental age” (as ascertained on an intelligence test) by the chronological age would yield an intelligence quotient. In 1916, American psychologist Lewis Terman suggested multiplying the quotient by 100 to remove fractions and abbreviated the term to IQ (Fancher, 1985), which has remained in use to this day (Gould, 1996).

2 Germ plasm refers to the hereditary material (genes) found in the fertilized egg and passed on from parent to progeny (Kevles, 1995).


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 4, 2008, p. 894-922
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14623, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 10:41:30 AM

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About the Author
  • Ann Ryan
    Loyola University Chicago
    E-mail Author
    ANN MARIE RYAN is an assistant professor of education at Loyola University Chicago. Her research interests include the history of Catholic schooling in the United States in the 20th century. Her recent publications include, “Negotiating Assimilation: Chicago Catholic High Schools’ Pursuit of Accreditation in the Early-Twentieth Century” in History of Education Quarterly and “‘The Straight Road’: Promoting Catholic Higher Education in Early-Twentieth-Century Chicago” in American Educational History Journal.
  • Alan Stoskopf
    Institute in Education at Northeastern University
    ALAN STOSKOPF is the Academic Specialist for Social Sciences and Humanities in the Institute in Education at Northeastern University. His most recent research is on how the ethical and emotional dimensions of adolescent students' thinking influence their intellectual understanding of history.
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