The Army Alpha  was developed shortly after the United States entered World War I by an American Psychological Association (APA) Committee on the Psychological Examination of Recruits, led by Robert Yerkes. It was one of three intelligence tests that were designed to identify Army recruits with low intelligence and allow for the recognition of those who were candidates for special assignments and officer-training schools. The Army Alpha emphasized verbal skills, and was given to all recruits.
Development of the Army Alpha
Once the United States decided to enter World War I, Robert Yerkes, the President of the APA at the time, was anxious to show the value of the field of psychology and the unique contribution it could make to the war effort. He first approached the United States Navy but was turned down; however, the United States Army was agreeable to have APA assist the war effort. They responded by setting up twelve committees, one of which, the Committee on the Psychological Examination of Recruits, was chaired by Yerkes. This committee was tasked with developing a quick-to-administer intelligence test to be used when deciding what sort of advanced training a recruit would receive. Yerkes, Lewis Terman, David Wechsler and other committee members collaborated to develop three such tests, the Army Alpha, the Army Beta (for non-English speakers and illiterate recruits), and an Individual Examination (a spoken test for those who failed the Beta).
The Army Alpha emphasized verbal abilities and was based on the previous work of Arthur Otis, Henry Herbert Goddard and Leon Lewis Thurstone, pioneers in the young field of intelligence testing and the quantification of cognitive skills. For those developing the test, “...the critical points were abilities to understand language to perform reasoning with semantic and quantitative relationships, to make ‘practical judgments,’ to infer rules and regularities from data, and to recall general information” (, p. 36). The test took 25 min to administer (via group administration), was made up of eight subtests, and produced a mental age score.
A trial was conducted with the test on 80,000 men. The army was happy with the trial and agreed to test all new recruits beginning in 1918. The tests were administered at a rate of 200,000 per month, and over 1,750,000 had been administered by the end of the war in November of 1918 .
Data and Findings
After the war, the data from the Army Alpha and Beta were analyzed, with surprising results. It appeared that the average recruit had a mental age of around 13 – a mild level of retardation. Also, data showed it was possible to grade European immigrants by their country of origin, and the average score of Black men was 10.4, which was considerably below the White average. The reason for this had to do mainly with the level of education of the recruits rather than low native intelligence, but Yerkes and others concluded incorrectly that the intelligence deficit was real, sounding alarm bells about the “menace of the feeble-minded” and the idea that the average scores from the different national groups reflected innate racial differences .
At least partly based on Yerkes’ findings, the United States Congress passed the Immigration Restriction Act (1924), which set immigration quotas based on the US population in 1890 (immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe had been relatively low before this date).
Criticisms and Confounds
Gould  presented criticisms and confounds associated with the use of the Army Alpha and Army Beta, in particular the cultural bias in the tests. There were also a number of problems in the administration of the tests. In particular, many who were unable to read English were still given the Alpha test and obtained a score of zero or close to zero, and those who failed the Alpha test were often not given an opportunity to take the Beta test, on which they may have performed at a higher level. Test conditions were also an issue. For example, the time allowed was insufficient and anxiety surrounded the whole procedure. Gould writes that with such confounds, the data should be looked at with considerable doubt.
Despite the confounds involved in the administration of and resulting data from the group of tests developed by Yerkes and his colleagues for use during World War I, their use marked two important shifts in intelligence testing that helped shape the field. It expanded the idea of intelligence testing to include group, rather than only individual, administration. Also, scores were now being used for positive as well as negative selection. Instead of scores indicating what an individual could not accomplish, scores were being used to predict what one might accomplish.