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Lewis Terman (1877–1956)

Lewis M. Terman was a psychologist who developed some of the earliest and most successful measures of individual differences. He was raised on an Indiana farm and, after an early career as a schoolteacher and high school principal, received his doctorate in psychology from Clark University in 1905. After four years of teaching pedagogy at the Los Angeles State Normal School, he joined the education faculty at Stanford University in 1910. In 1922 he became head of Stanford's Psychology Department, a position he held until his retirement in 1942.

At Stanford, Terman followed up his doctoral research on mental testing by working on a revision of Alfred Binet's 1905 scale of intelligence. Collaborating with graduate students, Terman's revision was published in 1916 as the "Stanford-Binet." An innovative feature of the Stanford-Binet was the inclusion of the "Intelligence Quotient" or IQ, an index that had not been previously used in mental tests. Although there were several competitive versions, Terman's revision of the Binet test utilized the largest standardized sample and, by the 1920s, became the most widely used individually administered intelligence scale.

The success of the Stanford-Binet brought Terman professional acclaim. In 1917 he played a key role in the development of intelligence tests for the army. These group-administered tests were largely based on the Stanford-Binet. Such tests enabled large numbers of individuals to be tested at one time and, after the war, Terman endeavored to utilize this efficient form of test administration in the schools. In collaboration with a committee of psychologists who had worked on the army tests, he developed the "National Intelligence Tests" for grades three to eight, which were ready for use in 1920. Throughout the 1920s he played a leading role in establishing the widespread use of various group intelligence tests in schools so that students could be classified into homogeneous ability groups, in what became termed a tracking system. This educational practice became well established in American schools by the 1930s. Terman was also a leader in the development of group achievement tests, which assessed school learning. He collaborated on the construction of the Stanford Achievement Test, the first test battery of its kind.

Terman viewed the widespread adoption of tests in the schools as a reflection of how testing could be of use to American society. It was to be the major means of achieving his vision of a meritocracy; a social order based on ranked levels of native ability. Consistent with the views of other leaders of the American mental testing movement, Terman believed that mental abilities were primarily a product of heredity. The highest purpose that testing could serve was the identification of intellectually gifted children–the potential leaders of society.

To achieve his goals, Terman launched a longitudinal study of gifted children in 1921, the first longitudinal study in psychology to use a large sample. Canvasing elementary and secondary schools in California, Terman and his research team came up with a sample of close to 1500 children with IQ scores of at least 135. In an attempt to dispel the popular notion that gifted children were underdeveloped in nonintellectual areas, Terman included measures of personality, character, and interests. Compared with a control group of California schoolchildren, Terman reported that gifted children excelled in measures of academic achievement. The profiles of gifted children also revealed that they were emotionally as well as intellectually mature. This sample was followed as the participants moved through adolescence, adulthood, and the retirement years. The study of the gifted over the lifespan demonstrated that they had achieved career success well above the average of college graduates and attained a high degree of personal satisfaction.

As a consequence of his research with the gifted, Terman devoted the latter part of his career to assessing nonintellectual personality traits. This work centered on the measurement of gender identification, which was viewed as a composite of motivational and emotional traits that differentiated the sexes. In 1936, with his research associate Catharine Cox Miles, he produced the first questionnaire measure of masculinity—femininity. The test was standardized on a sample, primarily made up of high school juniors and college sophomores. In essence, the test reflected the gender norms of the 1930s, though Terman was insensitive to the cultural and historical limits of his measure. He chose to emphasize the need to raise and educate girls and boys so that they would conform to the existing gender norms that fostered a clear distinction between the sexes.

He extended his interest in gender differences to the study of marital adjustment. He conducted a large-scale survey of several thousand married and divorced couples. In his study, he stressed that the key to marital happiness was the extent to which each spouse accepted the other's needs and feelings, and did not fight to get their own way. Happily married women were therefore characterized as being cooperative and content with their subordinate status. Terman's conventional views on gender thus carried over from his masculinity—femininity study to his marital research.

Terman's seminal contributions to the development of testing and the study of the intellectually gifted ensure his position as one of the pioneers of American psychology. Like many other psychologists of his time, however, he was insensitive to the cultural bias inherent in psychological testing, and did not anticipate the harmful effects that testing could have on those who were not in the mainstream of American society, especially poor and racial minority children. The changing social context of the 1960s therefore brought about a more critical evaluation of Terman's accomplishments in the testing field.


BORING, EDWIN G. 1959. "Lewis Madison Terman: 1877–1956." Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences 33:414–440.

CHAPMAN, PAUL DAVIS. 1988. Schools as Sorters: Lewis M. Terman, Applied Psychology, and the Intelligence Testing Movement, 1890–1930. New York: New York University Press.

MINTON, HENRY L. 1988. Lewis M. Terman: Pioneer in Psychological Testing. New York: New York University Press.

SEAGOE, MAY V. 1975. Terman and the Gifted. Los Altos, CA: Kaufmann.

TERMAN, LEWIS M. 1916. The Measurement of Intelligence. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

TERMAN, LEWIS M., et al. 1925. Genetic Studies of Genius: Vol. 1, Mental and Physical Traits of a Thousand Gifted Children. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

TERMAN, LEWIS M., et al. 1938. Psychological Factors in Marital Happiness. New York: McGraw-Hill.

TERMAN, LEWIS M., and MILES, CATHARINE COX. 1936. Sex and Personality: Studies in Masculinity and Femininity. New York: McGraw-Hill.


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