The history of the SAT

The Creation of a Standardized College Admissions Exam

The SAT, which has at various times been referred to as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, Scholastic Assessment Test, and SAT Reasoning Test, was created in an attempt to standardize college admissions procedures and increase access to higher education. In the later 19th century, it was common for individual universities to have their own admissions tests or to grant acceptances to students without testing through certification of specific high schools. Higher education at this time was largely a privilege of the upper classes, with only about 1 in 25 high school graduates going on to college.

At the turn of the 20th century, college presidents from 12 universities founded the College Entrance Examination Board, which is now known simply as the College Board. These original member institutions were mostly elite universities in the northeastern United States, such as Cornell, Columbia, and New York University. The organization developed a standardized admissions exam referred to colloquially as the "College Boards," which was administered for the first time in 1901. This test consisted of essay questions on subjects such as Greek, Latin, and physics, and it took five days to complete. Advance knowledge of the specific subject matter tested on each administration was available to students who paid a fee to the College Board for this service.

The SAT and the IQ Test

The development of the IQ test in 1905 would eventually cause the College Board to rethink its approach to the evaluation of university applicants. World War I-era U.S. Army experiments with the IQ test led directly to the creation of the SAT. Carl Brigham, who had worked with the Army's project of administering intelligence tests to over 2 million recruits, devised his own version, which was given to students at Princeton University and Cooper Union, a technical college. After his appointment to a College Board test development committee, Brigham's test evolved into the SAT, which was first taken by students in 1926. The SAT was intended to assess aptitude for learning rather than the received knowledge tested on the "College Boards."

The Growth of the SAT through 1961

The original SAT featured 9 sub-tests, 2 based on math and 7 based on verbal skills. The sections in the former category were entitled "Arithmetical Problems" and "Number Series," while the verbal sub-tests were called "Definitions," "Classification," "Artificial Language," "Antonyms," "Analogies," "Logical Inference," and "Paragraph Reading." During the first decade of the test's existence, some of these sections were dropped and then reinstated, and others were permanently eliminated (the two math sections and Artificial Language section are examples of the former and the latter respectively). By 1940, the SAT was taken by over 10,000 college applicants, and the surge in college enrollment occasioned by the G.I. Bill and other factors would lead to rapid growth in the number of test-takers and institutions that accepted the test through the 1950s. By 1961, the SAT was administered to over 800,000 students each year.

The SAT and Bias

The notion of the SAT as a test of intelligence, as opposed to rote memorization and regurgitation of high school subject matter, would advance public perception of the test's important role as an arbiter of merit-based university admissions decisions, a key reason that the test was created in the first place. Unfortunately, some institutions that wished to deny admission to minorities would adopt the test on the theory that there was a strong connection between intelligence and race. The SAT would therefore provide justification for racist admissions policies in a climate that was ignorant (willfully or otherwise) of the fact that lower minority SAT scores are explained by the cultural biases of the test itself.

The SAT through the 1970s

Criticism of the SAT's perceived perpetuation of status-quo power structures based on race and class has been a powerful agent of change to the test's content, administration, and accessibility. Competition from the ACT, first given in 1959, has also been a factor. The College Board has long claimed that the SAT is un-coachable, and published their own supporting study in 1965. This claim is undermined by the rise of the SAT preparation industry since the later 1940s, and the numerous revisions to the test in the years since implicitly concede the credibility of the SAT's critics. Scores on the versions of the SAT through 1941 were scaled to an average of 500, and this average declined in the 1960s and 1970s for at least partially unknown reasons, inspiring more revisions and efforts to increase accessibility. The 1974 SAT, for example, replaced "data sufficiency" questions with less-complicated "quantitative comparisons," and the College Board began releasing sample tests in 1978. These are just two of many examples of the College Board's attempt to counter cultural criticism of the SAT, a trend that continues to the present day.

Modern Revisions

Major revisions also took place in 1994 and 2005. The 1994 version removed antonyms in an effort to attenuate the benefits of vocabulary memorization, and reading passages were improved to more closely resemble material taught in actual college courses. The use of calculators became permissible for the first time. Criticism of ambiguous questions led to another round of revisions in 2005, the most significant of which were the elimination of certain types of questions that featured analogies and the introduction of the 2400 point scoring system with required essay section. The 2016 SAT reverses some of these changes, which can be seen as the College Board's response to continued competition from the ACT, the adoption of test-optional policies by many universities, and questions about the SAT's usefulness as a predictor of college success.