When high school students across the country and around the world sit down to take the SAT this year, they will face an exam quite unlike the one their classmates took in the past, and this can make preparing for SAT test day that much more difficult.
Why? For the first time in 11 years, the SAT has been revised, and the result is a new SAT that is vastly different from its famous predecessor. According to the College Board, the organization that administers the SAT, among the test’s official changes are its challenging evidence-based reading sections and its more difficult, multi-step math problems.
Of course, this is not the first time that the SAT has been revised. The College Board has changed the content of the now-ubiquitous college entrance exam no less than a half dozen times since high school students took its inaugural SAT in 1926. Over its 90 years in existence, the SAT’s meaning has also changed in a number of meaningful ways.
The origins of the SAT
Perhaps you have wondered, “What does ‘SAT’ stand for?” Originally, “SAT” was short for Scholastic Aptitude Test, and it was designed as an assessment that evaluated a given student’s college-specific skills. In 1993, the College Board renamed it “Scholastic Assessment Test,” to better reflect the fact that it does not measure innate intelligence—in fact, the name change came about to “correct the impression among some people that the SAT measures something that is innate and impervious to change regardless of effort and instruction.” The exam has also been known as the SAT I: Reasoning Test, the SAT Reasoning Test, and, now, simply as the SAT.
With so many changes, what does “SAT” stand for today? To learn more about the SAT’s present meaning, it is helpful to first delve into its past. What follows is a summary of the SAT’s history, described in “Secrets of the SAT,” a 1999 PBS publication, and in a 2003 College Board report titled, “A Historical Perspective on the Content of the SAT.”
After the United States entered World War I in 1917, an American psychologist named Robert Yerkes developed a test that was designed to assess the intelligence of his country’s new Army recruits. Scores on the Army Alpha, as his IQ test came to be called, would help decide a soldier’s ability to serve, which jobs he would take, and his potential for leadership positions. It measured the “verbal ability, numerical ability, ability to follow directions, and knowledge of information,” according to the U.S. Army.
Carl Brigham, a Princeton University instructor, helped Yerkes develop and administer the test. Once the war ended, Brigham modified the Army Alpha to evaluate the intelligence of college freshmen at Princeton University and applicants to The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City.
The College Board (which was founded in 1900) then tasked Brigham with developing a college entrance exam to screen high school students who were applying to other colleges. The result of Brigham’s work was the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which was administered on June 23, 1926, to more than 8,000 high school students at about 300 test centers.
The 1926 SAT was very different from the current exam. It was made up of nine subtests that measured students’ verbal and mathematical skills with a total of 315 questions, which students were expected to speed through in 97 minutes. According to the College Board, students were not expected to complete the entire exam. To help ease students’ struggles with this timeframe, several subtests were removed and the time limit was increased, in 1928 and 1929.
Critics of the 1926 SAT worried that the exam could harm education practices. As a response, in 1930, the SAT was divided into two sections—one measuring students’ verbal abilities and the other measuring their mathematical skills. These two scores would be reported separately, letting colleges’ admissions departments place different weights on students’ scores as a reflection of their college type and curriculum.
From 1930 to 1935, the Verbal portion of the SAT included only antonyms, sentence completion, and reading passages. From 1936 to 1946, it included these kinds of questions, plus analogies. Time limits varied from 80 to 115 minutes for the Verbal part of the test, based on what year the SAT was taken in.
At this time, the Mathematical section was made up of 100 free-response questions, which students had to solve in 80 minutes. Questions were straightforward, and designed so that students could answer the greatest number of questions in the least amount of time.
In an attempt to diversify the Harvard University student body, Harvard President James Bryant Conant began a new scholarship program in 1933 for academically gifted male high school students who did not attend East Coast boarding schools. He assigned his assistant dean, Henry Chauncey, the job of finding a suitable test to evaluate the gifted students for scholarships. Chauncey recommended the SAT, which Conant liked because he felt it was a good measure of the boys’ “pure intelligence” and did not reflect where each student attended high school.
Chauncey recommended that all member schools of the College Board begin using the SAT as a standardized admissions exam for scholarship applicants. By 1942, all applicants to College Board member colleges were required to take the SAT. This test incorporated multiple-choice questions, followed by five options, into the math portion of the exam for the first time. It was the SAT in this form that Chauncey administered to more than 300,000 people across the country on the same day, under a contract from the U.S. Army and Navy.
Given the success of the SAT in evaluating the intelligence of both military recruits and students, in 1948, the Educational Testing Service (or ETS) was founded to help administer the College Board’s exam to high school students nationwide. It was then that the SAT’s purpose began to more closely represent that which it holds today: a standardized measure of high school students’ college readiness.
The SAT expands nationally
Small changes to the SAT would follow as the exam grew in popularity. By the 1950s, a significant percentage of the Verbal test focused on reading passages, each of which ranged from 120 to 500 words in length. Students were required to answer common-sense questions about the content of the passages. Time limits were tight, with students required to answer between 107 and 170 questions in 90 to 100 minutes. Gradually, the College Board increased time limits and curbed question counts.
From 1958 to 1993, SAT creators made few changes to the Verbal part of the test. Yet several alterations were made to the Math portion, which incorporated a new question type that tested students’ abilities to evaluate whether or not the provided data was sufficient to answer each question. These were later replaced with questions that asked students to compare two mathematical quantities. This was done after studies revealed that students, especially those who had taken less complex high school math courses, could answer quantitative-comparison questions more quickly and reliably than data sufficiency questions.
But in 1994, both the Verbal and Math sections underwent drastic overhauls.
On the Verbal test, more emphasis was placed on critical reading and reasoning skills, reading material was made more accessible and engaging, and the length of passages was lengthened—so that text more closely resembled that which students would likely have to read in college courses.
This greater emphasis on critical reading, SAT creators hoped, would help the SAT stand for positive change, influencing the educational establishment to better prepare students for college and beyond. The 1994 SAT changes helped the College Board more closely align its test content with a 1990 recommendation of the Commission on New Possibilities for the Admissions Testing Program to “approximate more closely the skills used in college and high school work.”
Antonyms were removed from the test, based on the premise that they encouraged rote memorization instead of critical thinking. Additionally, in an effort to influence schools’ curriculum to include more reading, the College Board increased the percentage of passage-based reading questions from 29 percent to 50 percent. This increased the testing time limit and reduced the number of questions.
For the first time on the Math subtest, test-takers were required to arrive at their own solutions to questions, rather than select from a set of answer choices. Students were also permitted to use calculators on the Math section. These changes were made to better align the mathematics portion of the SAT with high school students’ curriculum.
A major influence in these changes was the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), as well as similar organizations, that suggested that more attention should be given to problem-solving in the realm of mathematics.
Recent changes to the SAT
In 2005, the Verbal Reasoning and Math portions of the SAT underwent another major redesign. This time, changes were made to ensure the SAT would better align with mainstream American high school curriculum, and to highlight the importance of college readiness.
A new Writing section with multiple-choice questions and an essay was added. Analogies were removed from the Verbal Reasoning portion (now referred to as Critical Reading), and more passage-based questions were added. The Math section incorporated content from more advanced high school math courses, such as second-year algebra, while quantitative comparisons were eliminated.
The latest iteration of the SAT again works to more closely align the exam with what high school students are currently learning, and with what they can expect to learn in college.
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Despite the College Board’s efforts to design a more equitable test that is better suited to today’s high school students, critics say the new exam’s emphasis on words may make it more challenging for students with less reading experience or those who speak a different language at home.
In addition, some students are worried that the new changes may affect what an average SAT score is, and thus, college admissions chances. This, The New York Times has reported, has left a number of students considering whether they should try their hand at the new SAT or sit for the more familiar ACT.
The College Board, however, asserts that the new changes will not drastically alter students’ outcomes. “We are very mindful of the verbal load on this test,” Cyndie Schmeiser, the Chief of Assessment at the College Board, told The New York Times. “We are keeping it down. I think kids are going to find it comfortable and familiar. Everything about the test is publicly available. There are no mysteries.”
In all, eight major changes are coming to the March 2016 SAT. Gone are the obscure SAT vocabulary words of exams past. The redesigned SAT will feature more practical math questions (though they are not necessarily easier), a no-calculator math section, a long reading section, more applicable vocabulary, a shorter overall test, and an optional essay.
For students, this will mean defining more commonly used vocabulary words in reading passages, instead of “the definitions of words that perhaps they crammed for the night before the test but may not use,” says Schmeiser. It will also mean using evidence to support their answer choices.
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Furthermore, students will no longer be penalized for wrong answers, meaning that, unlike previous versions of the SAT, guessing incorrectly will not result in a points deduction. This may lead students to ask themselves, “How is the new SAT scored?” The new SAT will be scored on a scale of 1600, the same scale on which the exam was scored until 2005, when the scoring changed to a scale of 2400.
A shift in the testing landscape
Most colleges and universities allow students to choose between the ACT or the SAT (or to sit for both). Geographically, students in the Midwest tend to opt for the ACT, while students on the East and West coasts prefer the SAT. Despite this distribution, more students ultimately take the ACT.
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After surpassing the SAT in popularity in 2012, the ACT continues to dominate as the standardized college entrance exam of choice in the United States. This is partly because the ACT was quick to align its content with the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSS).
The Common Core State Standards, or CCSS, were released in 2010. They are designed to prepare high school students for college or employment after graduation, and they are focused on comprehension, critical thinking, and research, rather than rote memorization. To date, 42 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the CCSS. The ACT’s emphasis on the CCSS, and its connection to classroom curriculum, can make the ACT seem like a natural choice for many students.
This year’s changes to the SAT presumably partially reflect the SAT’s desire to regain its position as the dominant college entrance exam. The changes also reflect other developments now occurring in the high school testing landscape—with most states implementing the CCSS, some individuals have discussed the possibility of replacing students’ final exams with a test already taken by many people, such as the ACT or SAT.
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As of January 2016, the U.S. Department of Education has given seven states permission to use either the ACT or the SAT as an official high school assessment. This approval is part of a provision in the Every Student Succeeds Act. But states must conduct studies on the efficacy of the ACT and SAT as general high school assessment exams in order to use them, according to Education Week.
Four states won approval to use the SAT—Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, and New Hampshire—and three states have approval to use the ACT—Arkansas, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. The ACT is now discussing its exam with 10 other states that are interested in using it as a federal high school assessment.
For the College Board, such a change in high school testing policies could conceivably augment its exam numbers.
But just as states are becoming more enthusiastic about the ACT and SAT, higher education appears to be doing the opposite: since 2004, more than 140 U.S. colleges have declared themselves “test-optional.” This list of 140+ institutions includes schools like Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut; Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; George Washington University in Washington, D.C.; and, most recently, the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware.
In total, there are more than 850 colleges across America that have deemphasized the importance of standardized college entrance exams when making admissions decisions. One school, Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, even refuses to consider submitted test scores.
Of course, just because certain colleges are placing less importance on standardized college entrance exams does not mean that few students are taking the ACT or SAT. Millions of high school students continue to register for these tests each year. This is likely due to the fact that some colleges still require at least one of these exams as part of a college application.
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It may also be the result of increased admissions competition, especially at the country’s most selective schools. Because nearly all test-optional colleges still accept exam scores, many students take the ACT and/or the SAT in an attempt to improve their admissions chances.
So what does “SAT” stand for?
Ultimately, what does “SAT” stand for? Today, the College Board’s goal is to gauge high school students’ understanding of their curriculum and their readiness for college. Still, some studies have highlighted the belief that high school grades may be better predictors of college success than ACT or SAT scores.
“No test can truly measure ‘aptitude’ for academic success because school performance is not based on a single factor,” Bob Schaeffer, Public Education Director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), told The Washington Post. “Math and verbal skills—the qualities measured by tests such as the SAT, GMAT and LSAT—are just one component. Non-cognitive traits, such as creativity, motivation and ‘grit,’ also play significant roles. High school grades are a more accurate predictor of college outcomes than any test because grades better capture the many characteristics that improve the chances of graduation.”
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Indeed, this 2014 study found almost no difference in the cumulative GPA and graduation rates between students who submitted standardized test scores to colleges and those who did not.
Despite such criticism and research, despite pressing competition from the ACT, and despite the fact that some colleges no longer require students to take standardized entrance exams, it seems that the SAT is here to stay. Those students who are planning to take the revised 2016 test (and all exams thereafter) should familiarize themselves with the new format and work through SAT practice tests, available on both the College Board’s website and in the free Varsity Tutors SAT Prep Book.