Where and Why? History of the SAT and ACT, part-2

Where and Why?  History of the SAT and ACT, pt. 2

Welcome back to our history lesson, trying to explain how the SAT and ACT got to be the way they currently are and, even more importantly, trying tell you why we need to take these exams in the first place.  When we last left off, the United States was filled with lots and lots of colleges and universities, but all with different admissions requirements.  Professors, administrators, high school teachers, parents, and of course prospective students were all becoming more and more frustrated with the system.  I mean, imagine if you had to spend hours creating one project for one admissions committee and then spend even more hours on a completely different project for another committee.  This would very quickly get tiring and annoying and pointless, and perhaps would dissuade you from this whole college thing.

So, as the world was approaching the 20th Century, things needed to change to allow students to more uniformly get past the guardians at the gates of college.  And it is here that we continue our story…


1893 – Ten top private colleges come together to standardise their admissions criteria and recommend to area high schools a common curriculum to help prepare students for the process

1899 – These same colleges create the North Central Accreditation, the first organisation charged with enforcing uniformity in high school curricula and college education standards

1900 – Fourteen leading private colleges from the Northeast form the College Entrance Examination Board (CEEB), which later becomes the College Board, to standardise admissions processes and encourage New England boarding schools to prepare their students properly

1901 – The first of the College Board Exams is conducted at 69 locations and tests 973 students in essay formats for the subjects of English, French, German, Latin, Greek, History, Mathematics, Chemistry, and Physics; you can see sample questions here

1905 – Alfred Binet creates the first IQ test, which is used to identify slow learners by matching them to their “mental age”

World War I – Robert Yerkes, a Harvard Professor, conducts the Alpha and Beta tests to check the IQs of two million military recruits in order to build up statistical evidence for the IQ test

1923 – Carl C. Brigham, who was one of Yerke’s assistants, administers his own version of the Alpha test to freshmen at Princeton University and Cooper Union

1925 – The CEEB asks Brigham to develop an exam based on the Alpha test that would supplement the College Board Exams

1926 – Brigham’s creation, the Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT), is conducted at 300 locations and tests over 8000 students in definitions, arithmetic, classification, antonyms, artificial language, analogies, reading, inference, and number series; you can see sample questions here:

1933 – James Conant, the new President of Harvard, asks an assistant dean, Henry Chauncey, to find a way to test public school students for a scholarship program that looks at how much they have achieved in their school career; Chauncey finds the SAT

1933 – IBM machines start being used to score state-wide exams, like the New York Regents

1934 – Harvard gives the SAT for the first time for scholarship purposes

1935 – Harvard requires the SAT for all potential students

1936 – Brigham starts to question whether a single test can really measure innate intelligence and thus starts to oppose efforts to spread the SAT to other schools

1937 – The College Board introduces the Achievement Tests, which check student knowledge in a variety of subject areas

1938 – Chauncey convinces all members of the College Board, which represented all the Ivy League schools, to use the SAT mainly for scholarship applicants

1938 – Stanley Kaplan starts a small company in his Brooklyn basement to help aspiring college students improve their chances of admissions, the first of its kind anywhere

1939 – The College Board starts using bubble sheets and electronic scoring

1941 – The Scholastic Achievement Test changes to the Scholastic Aptitude Test to signify the shift away from what students have learned in school (which inherently reflects the quality of the education) and toward the ability of students to demonstrate different forms of non-academic intelligence

1942 – The College Board Exam is abolished and all member schools start using the SAT for all students, not just for scholarship aspirants

1942 – Traditional mathematics topics, through geometry, start to be tested in a multiple-choice format on the SAT

1943 – Brigham, the father and greatest opponent of the standardised college admissions test, dies, thus paving the way for rapid expansion

1944 – The SAT is given en masse to over 300,000 students at one time as the Army-Navy College Qualifying Test, thus proving that multiple choice exams can be simultaneously given to a large group

1948 – Educational Testing Service (ETS) is created with Chauncey as President and Contant as Chairman of Board

1948 – ETS opens an office at Berkeley, California, with hopes of convincing the University of California system to start requiring the SAT

1952 – The structure of the Verbal Section is set to Reading Comprehension, Analogies, Sentence Completions, and Antonyms with formats that remain for the next 40-50 years (though the number of questions changes over time)

1959 – Ted McCarrel and E.F. Lindquist start American College Testing (ACT) to provide testing options in regions not reached by SAT (essentially, everywhere but the Northeast USA) and to be an indicator of academic achievement, not just reasoning abilities; over 75,000 students are tested with the ACT in the first administration on the topics of English, math, social studies, and natural sciences

1959 – Data Sufficiency, a math question type that currently appears on the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT), starts being tested on the SAT along with multiple-choice problem solving

1959 – The Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT) is administered for the first time

1960 – The University of California system signs on to require the SAT, thus becoming ETS’s greatest client

1972 – The College Board releases a report that shows that coaching can significantly improve results in the math section of the exam

1974 – Quantitative Comparisons, which is currently tested on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), replaces the Data Sufficiency question type

1979 – The Federal Trade Commission releases a report that says that coaching can lead to an average score increase of 50 points

1981 – John Katzman, after graduating from Princeton University, starts a coaching company known as the Princeton Review

1984 – Stanley Kaplan sells his business to the Washington Post Company, which helps to rapidly expand his company, Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions to become the largest company of its kind in the world

1989 – The ACT changes by replacing the Social Studies and Natural Science sections with Reading and Science Reasoning

1993 – The name is changed from Scholastic Aptitude Test to SAT I: Reasoning Test; the letters S, A, and T no longer mean anything (though many people call them the Scholastic Assessment Tests)

1994 – Based on recommendations from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Student-Produced Response questions (known as Grid-Ins) are introduced to the SAT Math section, and calculators are now permitted for use on the exam; topics of probability, slope, basic statistics, and other ‘real world’ questions are added

1994 – Antonyms are removed from the SAT and the focus becomes more heavily on reading comprehension (there was even consideration of making the Verbal section entirely based on RC)

1994 – The Achievement Tests are renamed to become the SAT II: Subject Tests

1995 – The scoring medians for the SAT, which had been slowly dropping as the number of test-takers had increased, are realigned to 500 each for Verbal and Math

1996 – The American College Testing permanently changes its name to the ACT, and calculators are now allowed on the exam

2001 – The President of the University of California system considers dropping the SAT as a key criterion of the admissions process because he feels that it’s not a good indicator of college success; there is also growing dissatisfaction with the abstract topics of analogies and quantitative comparison questions

2004 – The names ‘SAT I’ and ‘SAT II” drop the Roman numerals and become the SAT Reasoning Test and SAT Subject Tests, respectively

2005 –The SAT Reasoning Test undergoes drastic changes that include: Dropping Analogies and Quantitative Comparisons, merging the SAT II English exam to form the Writing and Essay sections, raising the maximum scaled score from 1600 to 2400, changing the name of the Verbal section to Critical Reading, and making the content of the exam slightly harder

2005 – The ACT adds the optional Writing section

2007 – With the acceptance of Harvey Mudd, every college in the USA now accepts the ACT, while numerous colleges still do not accept the SAT

2010 – The number of ACT test-takers finally exceeds the number of SAT test-takers, with 1.57 million compared to 1.55 million


Okay…so this was probably a lot more history than you wanted to know.  But I found it interesting, and I hope you did too.  What’s fascinating to me is that, based on this history, I took a radically different SAT exam than you probably will take.  My SAT exam included Analogies and Quantitative Comparisons.  I had to write my essay and answer grammar questions in the SAT II Subject Test.  And my ACT only JUST started allowing calculators.  (Can you guess when I took the exams??)

And despite how annoying it was to prepare for these exams, now that I look at the history, I realize that these tests allow colleges to compare each of us based on common information.  While that information may not be represent our abilities (as many argue that the SAT and ACT do not), they still allow colleges to be more objective, something you will indubitably appreciate once you are admitted.

So stop feeling bad about having to take these exams.  Just get to work, knowing that lots of history and research and trial and error got you to this point.  So buck up, study hard, and move past the guardians at the gate.