The SAT: Past and Present

SAT vs ACT administration by state.

SAT vs ACT administration prevalence by state.

The SAT is a standardized test predominately used for college admissions in the United States. It was first introduced in 1926, although it has been updated several times in order to conform with mercurial cultural beliefs regarding standardized testing. The test has a dissonant history of progressive aspirations with prejudicial undertones; its first iteration was designed by Carl Brigham, a proponent of eugenics, who wanted to eliminate the role of socioeconomic testing biases in admissions.

The first College Board exam, given to 973 students across the United States, was administered in 1901. The exam contained sections on English, classical languages, chemistry, and physics. It consisted of a series of essay responses and was rated on a subjective scale from “very poor” to “excellent”. The first SAT exam was administered much later, in 1926, to over 8,000, primarily male students. Test takers were given about 90 minutes to answer 315 questions. The test was split into many sections with abstruse names such as “artificial language”. There were so many sections, in fact, that in 1928 they actually had to decrease the number of verbal sections to 7. A year later they reduced this number to 6. In the same period of time, the time limit was increased to roughly 2 hours and math was eliminated from the test entirely. From this point forward, the mean score was intended to be 500, with a standard deviation of 100 points. Verbal test scores were linked by equating current scores to those obtained in 1941. The same was done with math scores obtained, when they were re-introduced, in 1942. Thus, the average SAT score was intended to be about 1,000.

This method of “equating” scores later backfired as the mean SAT score began to steadily decline during the 1960’s. During this period of time, the number of SAT tests taken doubled; thus, some attributed the score decline to shifts in demography. Yet, various studies have concluded that other unknown factors contributed to the decline in SAT scores, especially after 1970. Several important changes were made to the test during the 90’s, by which time the average SAT score had dropped to 900. Reading comprehension questions were further emphasized, in an attempt to reduce the importance of crystallized vocabulary in SAT scores. Plans to mandate an essay along with the exam were dropped due to dissent from minority groups, who believed that the essay would accompany an increase in test cost. It was finally decided that scores would no longer be equated to those achieved in the 1940’s, due to increasing discrepancies between a student’s raw score (# of questions correct) and scaled score (section score out of 800).

Although this correction decreased the aforementioned discrepancy, it was accompanied by a disproportionate increase in the number of students achieving a perfect score. Thus, this was corrected by slightly increasing the test’s difficulty and adding a writing section. This produced the 2400 composite score that many of us are familiar with. Score choice, an option that allows students to select which College Board exams to send to college, was made universal in 2009. In recent years, students have been required to submit photo ID, typically an admissions ticket, in order to enter their testing centers. An admissions ticket typically consists of your name, birthdate, test you intend to take, along with other identifying information including a photo. The College Board has very stringent requirements for many elements of these photos, such as facial expression and the subject’s distance from the camera, amongst other things.

Another major overhaul produced the most recent iteration of the SAT exam, which was first administered earlier this year, primarily to members of the class of 2017. Previously, a quarter of a point was deducted from a student’s raw score for each incorrect answer; now, students simply miss out on the opportunity to “gain” points; and the score is once again out of 1600. The test has also introduced new “cross-test” scores, presumed to indicate proficiency in areas such as “Analysis in Science”. The writing section, which was unpopular among many admissions offices and students alike, has been eliminated; although, in reality it seems to have been conjoined with the critical reading section. The essay is now optional, and a list of colleges requiring it for admissions can be found here: http://bit.ly/1K9X7Wg.

After skimming through this dull recitation of the various arbitrary changes made to a test that is heavily weighed in college admissions, you may be wondering: why is this test so important to colleges? Why is it necessary? Originally, the test was actually an IQ test in disguise. In fact, high scores on an SAT exam administered before 2005 may qualify you for entry into MENSA. Although this is no longer entirely the case with newer iterations of the SAT, it is clear that IQ and socioeconomic status strongly correlate with your composite score. These truths are often implicit, but rarely stated directly. Instead, the exam is alleged to “complement” the predictive value of high school GPA. Studies estimate that, although the SAT alone could explain ~13% of the variance in SAT scores, high school GPA alone can explain ~15%; when high school GPA is combined with SAT subject test scores ~22% of college success can be accounted for, but factoring in the regular SAT adds very little (0.1%) predictive value.

Thus, it is likely that SAT subject test scores in conjunction with high school GPA might better predict “college success”. It is interesting to note that colleges actually benefit more from recruiting students with potential for future success, not necessarily students who are likely to have “college success”. Smart people like Bill Gates garner lots of prestige and money for a school, regardless of whether they graduate; as do pro-athletes, entertainers, etc. Fratboys, stereotypically the least intelligent college students, actually donate the most of any group to their respective alma maters. Thus, assessments of intelligence, athleticism, and philanthropic spirit may override concerns about “college success”.

In conclusion, the regular SAT is an arbitrarily contrived standardized test that purports to predict college success, but is more likely an intelligence test in disguise and thus provides colleges with a socially acceptable metric to gauge how potential students might benefit their alma mater as alumni. College ranking services, such as the U.S News & World Report, have perverted admissions in recent years by rewarding colleges for rejecting applicants– who now compete with an increasing number of international competitors that will likely return home once they complete their studies–and maintaining artificially high test standardized scores among their students. All of this distracts from the true, noble purpose of college: education.

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