- The SAT was created by The College Board 93 years ago to provide colleges with a metric to narrow down applicants.
- The exam originated from an IQ test given to US soldiers prior to World War I.
- Questions, scores, and test structure have all gone through multiple rounds of transformations since the test’s inception.
- Recently, a growing number of schools have enacted test-optional policies which let students opt out of sending test scores.
- Continue scrolling below to the ways the SAT has changed over the past 93 years.
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Last year, just about two million students took one of the most important tests of their lives. The Scholarship Aptitude Test (known by nearly everyone as simply the SAT) first emerged 93 years ago and quickly entrenched itself as a stressful but integral element of almost every student’s academic portfolio. Aside from a high school transcript, the scores a high schooler receives on this single three-hour test could determine where they go to school and pivot their life path. The test has gone through numerous changes and transformations over its lengthy lifetime. The questions asked, the test’s length, and the way it’s graded have all ebbed and flowed through the years, often accompanied by criticism from students and educators alike.
When the SAT was created, it was meant to serve as an independent predictor of how well students will perform in college. High schools across the US vary widely in terms of resources and academic rigour and the test was meant to level the playing field. But the SAT is not without its critics. Since its inception, students and educators have accused the test of disproportionately favouring wealthy white students. A recent report out of Georgetown University appeared to bolster that argument, showing how if schools were to accept students based only on SAT scores, the accepted student body would be noticeably wealthier and less diverse.
Preparing for the SAT has turned into a lucrative business. High school students (and even some middle schoolers) spend restless nights studying and their families give test prep companies like Kaplan and The Princeton Review thousands of dollars every year, all with the dream of bumping up their scores by even the slightest margins.
But there’s also reason to believe far fewer schools will require SAT scores in the future, if not do away with it entirely. Hundreds of schools around the country have already dropped the SAT, and traditionally highly esteemed schools are starting to hop on board.
For now, though, the SAT remains the law of the land for admissions. Since the test began it has gone through multiple transformations, adapting and restructuring itself to fit with the educational era. Some of the changes were mean to combat coaching and cheating while others were experimentations attempting to prod high school classrooms into prioritising certain subjects (like writing). Many of the most recent changes have been made in an attempt to try and address the racial and economic grievances noted above. Continue scrolling below to see how the SAT has changed over the past 93 years and where it might be heading.
The US Army, a eugenics professor, and thousands of universities came together to give birth to the world’s biggest standardised exam.
The SAT test actually originated from an IQ test for US Army recruits entering World War I called Army Alpha. The Princeton psychology professor Carl Brigham played an instrumental role in developing the test, and was approached by The College Board (the current test makers) to create a similar exam geared towards high school students applying to college. That exam came to be called The Scholarship Aptitude Test. The first SAT was administered on June 23, 1926, to just over 8,000 college candidates. By 1938, every school part of the College Board signed on to use the exam for admittance.
It’s worth noting that the modern criticism levied against the SAT as imbued with racist prejudices has roots dating back to the exam’s founding. Brigham, known as “the father of the SAT” was involved with the eugenics movement and even wrote an entire book looking at racial differences in test scores. He erroneously argued that increased racial mixing was degrading American education.
1950s-1960s: The modern SAT takes shape, and colleges around the country adopt the exam as a standard bar for entry.
The original SAT consisted of one single score derived from nine subtests, with seven focusing on verbal reasoning and two on maths. The test would go on to add and subtract sections over the next few decades before finally settling on two sections of maths and reading, each with an 800 point scale.
By 1952, the test started to more closely resemble the current test, with a verbal reasoning structure consisting of reading comprehension, analogies, antonyms, and sentence completion and a separate maths section. As the 1950s came to a close, over half a million students took the test annually. The SAT had become a household name, and a near necessity for students applying to college.
1960s- 1970s, the rise of the test prep industry and the controversy surrounding ‘coaching.’
The SAT was originally heralded as “uncoachable,” but the ’60s proved that wrong. With more students taking the test than ever before and more schools making it a key determining factor in admissions, testing coaches emerged around the country to help students game the system – for a price. The SAT even had to change the weights of its test sections and alter its questions to respond to the growing presence of test prep behemoths like Kaplan.
According to a technical report on the SAT released in 1971 called, The College Board Admissions Testing Programs, test makers in the 1960s removed a six option antonym section and remade the exam to increase the length and install, “item types that are difficult to ‘coach’.” In an attempt to supposedly level the candidate playing field, the test questions were also re-written to look less like questions a student might receive in one of their high school classroom exams.
The same report said that the combination of more students applying to college than ever before and schools becoming more selective turned the SAT into “a barrier to college that must, at all costs, be overcome.” Around this same time, the College Board established many of the security measures in place today to prevent cheating.
1970s -1980s: SAT questions finally released to the public.
The debate of coaching continued into the 1970s. The practice, which critics argued was scamming families out of money with meager results, even spawned an inquiry by the Federal Trade Commission. While that was going on, test makers made several structural changes once again.
In 1974, the test time was reduced from three hours to two hours and 45 minutes. The test also added in a new section called The Test of Standard Written English, a multiple-choice section aimed at predicting how well students could navigate the English language.
Four years later, partly as an effort to pour water over the flaming popularity of test prep companies, The College Board released a set of sample SAT questions to the public. This marked the first time the notoriously closed-door exam had officially made its way to the public.
1980s – 2000: SAT places greater emphasis on reading and allows calculators.
Since the SAT was first introduced, critics have argued for and against adding a written essay section. That push reached a fever pitch in 1994 but was ultimately rejected. During that same year, the SAT shifted to place more emphasis on reading, rather than just multiple choice.
1994 marked the first time students were allowed to use calculators during the exam, something that continues to this day. Questions requiring students to determine the opposite meaning of a word were also removed from the verbal section.
All of these changes,College Board officials said at the time, were meant to “discourage” test coaching and promote diverse student body applicants.
Sources: Los Angeles Times
2000 to 2010: After almost a century, the test adds an essay and bumps up the total score.
Arguably the most impactful change to hit the SAT arrived nearly 90 years after its inception. In 2005, to the appeal of some and consternation of others, a 50-minute essay was finally added.
But writing was not the only major change for the 2005 test takers. The SAT also took an ax to analogy questions, a longtime staple, and increased the maximum score from 1600 to 2400: 800 points were awarded for maths, reading, and writing sections. All those changes increased the test length to a herculean three hours and 45 minutes, without breaks.
At the time, a spokesperson from College Board told NBC News that the writing section was added to make writing, “more of a priority across the United States.”
2010 – present Just kidding! SAT scraps the essay requirement and returns to 1600 score.
If students are looking for consistency through the ages, they certainly won’t find it at The College Board. Eleven years after its essay mandate and score overhaul, the College Board reneged and nixed both changes. The reversal accompanied a complete overhaul which focused on prioritising vocabulary and decreasing the number of maths topics.
In a statement made after the overhaul, College Board President David Coleman said the changes were meant to address the idea that the SAT had become “disconnected” from high school classroom curriculums. Coleman acknowledged the exam’s struggles on that front throughout the years.
“We must certainly ask ourselves if we are, together or as a group, doing all we can to advance equity and excellence,” Coleman said. “Because if you look around, it sure doesn’t look like it.”
The 2016 changes also removed the guessing penalty (where students lose points for answering questions incorrectly) and lowered the number of multiple-choice options from five to four per question.
Looking forward, SAT pushes for “Adversity Score” but some schools are turning away entirely.
Over the last two years, the College Board has been experimenting with a new “Adversity Score,” which attempts to identify and categorise the socioeconomic status of students. The College Board looks at data on the crime and poverty rates of a student’s neighbourhood and the student’s family structure, as well as the quality of their high school, and combines them to come up with a score between one and 100.
The College Board says the score is meant to “contextualize” a student in their environment and serve as a metric to help schools enroll students from more diverse backgrounds. Critics have derided the score for what they see as placing undue emphasis on an applicant’s background and casting students with a type of socioeconomic scarlet letter. As of now, schools can see the score but students cannot. The College Board expanded its adversity score to 150 schools in 2019 and expects it will be available to every school come 2020.
There’s reason to believe the SAT may lose its placement as the universal standard for admissions in the near future. By some estimates, nearly 1,000 colleges and universities already offer test-optional programs. While most of the traditionally elite schools have hung on to the SAT, that changed last year when the University of Chicago announced they would no longer require SAT or ACT scores from their applicants.
News this year of rampant SAT cheating as part of the college admission scandal has only added to the call by critical groups to turn away from the SAT. Whether or not that actually happens on a broad scale remains unclear, but if history is any indicator, you can expect the exam to undergo even more structural changes in the future.
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