It seems to have always been there, looming over your final year of high school as the last big test to take before beginning to pursue your higher education goals. The SAT is just one standardized test nearly every college-bound student spends months preparing for and hours completing, sometimes more than once.

As a student struggling to remember integers and memorizing powers, exponents and roots, questions can arise as to why go through all this trouble after all that studying and test taking that already shows your capabilities through high school. When did the SAT start, and when did SAT scores change to make it even more of a challenge?

The SAT evolved from a desire to understand intelligence. There are good reasons why the SAT was created, and why the long-standing score levels have changed in the last few years.

The Start of the Intelligence Test

The SAT has its origins in IQ testing, which was a relatively new movement. In the mid-1800s, scientists thought that intelligence was measured by the size of the human skull. The bigger the skull, the bigger the brain, and hence the greater capability for intelligence. That theory didn’t hold up for long.

Scientist Wilhelm Wundt believed it was the ability to reflect on a person’s own thoughts and to process that into other areas that measured an individual’s intelligence. These are the fundamental origins of the eventual IQ test and subsequent standardized testing for all school children.

IQ Matters and SAT

IQ tests began in France, where the French Ministry of Education gathered researchers to develop a baseline test to distinguish intelligence. The Simon-Binet IQ test was intended to weed out lazy children from those who could not grasp standard elementary knowledge. The test consisted of a few rudimentary components, including:

  • Logical Reasoning
  • Naming Objects
  • Locating Rhyming Words

The child’s age was compared to the score and multiplied by 100 to place the child above or below peers. It gained popularity all over Europe and in the Americas in the early 20th century. The formula is:

(Mental age/chronological age) X 100

IQ Score and Ratings

The IQ laid the foundation for further understanding of intelligence as a child progressed from primary education to higher education.

The range for average intelligence is 90 to 109, which is where most test takers fall. Only 99.5 percent of those who take an IQ test are above 140 and below 60.

  • Over 140 - Genius or near genius
  • 120 - 140 - Very superior intelligence
  • 110 - 119 - Superior intelligence
  • 90 - 109 - Normal or average intelligence
  • 80 - 89 – Slightly less than average intelligence
  • 70 - 79 - Borderline deficiency
  • Under 70 - Definite feeble-mindedness

When Did the SAT Start?

War played a large part in the spread of the SAT as an acceptable standardized test that could measure a person’s intelligence that can help to judge the potential for higher pursuits. Robert Yerkes, who had been a major player in the IQ testing movement, persuaded the United States Army to test recruits enlisting to join the fray of World War I. The Army Alpha, as it was called, was the first widely administered IQ test with a massive pool of test subjects.

One of Yerkes’ assistants was a professor at Princeton University. Carl Brigham took the Army Alpha and added more challenging test components, such as math formulas and deeper comprehension of written passages. He used the test for the first time in 1926 to study thousands of college applicants.

The SAT Takes Off

As the new president of Harvard, James Bryant Conant tasked an assistant professor, Henry Chauncey, to find a way to test children who may have a gift for knowledge. Chauncey found Brigham’s test to be ideal. Conant eventually decided to use Brigham’s altered Army Alpha test, now called the SAT, to weed out academically gifted boys for a new scholarship program.

The test that resulted in 1933 was designed to give children, outside of the Eastern boarding schools of privilege, a chance to excel in higher education that may not be available to them elsewhere.

SAT Evolves from Scholarship to Admissions

War again played a significant part in the evolution of the SAT. In 1938, Chauncey persuaded the member schools of the College Board into using Harvard’s scholarship SAT test format. The test was used as a scholarship measure until 1942 when World War II took many college students overseas to fight.

Under contract from the Army and the Navy, Chauncey was tasked with administering the SAT test to more than 300,000 people across the country at approved testing centers in 1944. The feat was accomplished in one day. This successful endeavor helped to propel the SAT into the fabric of a changing country and education industry.

After the war, the Education Testing Service was chartered in 1948. This institution used the SAT for millions of college admission applicants.

SAT Subjects Change

The SAT full-form test became a standard for college acceptance in the late 1940sm but it is a shadow of the nearly four-hour test that students are subjected to today. Originally, the SAT was made up of nine sub-tests, two of which were based on math and seven on verbal skills.

The math portion was comprised of:

  • Arithmetical Problems
  • Number Series

The verbal section contained:

  • Logical Inference
  • Paragraph Reading
  • Definitions
  • Classifications
  • Artificial Language
  • Antonyms
  • Analogies

These subsets were edited out or replaced during the first decade as the test was perfected to reflect the standard of what a student should have mastered during their years in school.

Why the SAT Gained in Popularity

The SAT is designed to measure how much a person knows and how he or she can apply that knowledge in different areas. It is different than its predecessors in that it does not test on memorization and regurgitation of the subject matter that a student has learned by rote and parroted through their school career.

It became an arbiter of admissions based on merit over the ability to simply soak up information. The SAT became widely accepted as people realized this highly-regarded intelligence test was based on a person’s grasp of information rather than arbitrary evidence of a person’s capabilities, such as the physical size of their head.

SAT and Bias

The test score was unfortunately held up as a standard without accommodating for prejudice on the test itself, availability of education, cultural biases within the test and other serious considerations that were due to ignorance and blatant racism.

Criticism continued throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Sub scores were reduced to less than the previous average of 500. The College Board began to rectify the low scores on the SAT by providing sample tests starting in 1978. This became a wildly successful endeavor that was part of the College Board’s many attempts to counter cultural criticism of the big test.

SAT Preparation Industry

By the 1940s, the SAT had become known among the public as a test that could help to get a student into higher education as well as into higher-paying jobs. Employers began to consider the SAT as a way to weed out applicants as well.

Thus the SAT preparation industry was born. Books and test-prep classes, both paid and unpaid, popped up in bookstore and door-to-door sales. The test was winding its way into popular culture. It was optional but more than likely needed if you hoped to attend college and rise in your field.

When the Modern SAT Began

Beginning in 1994, the SAT began to undergo significant changes. That year’s version removed antonyms. This was done to counteract students who tended to memorize vocabulary.

Reading passages were revamped to reflect modern college course work. Calculators were permitted for the first time. The SAT settled into a better, more culturally diverse and reflective path.

More than a decade later, the test was given a new round of revisions. In 2005, specific types of analogy questions were eliminated. The 2400 point scoring system was introduced along with an essay section.

New SAT Format vs. Old

It’s only been a relatively short time since the SAT has had a true redo. In the spring of 2016, the test was overhauled to mirror the types of math and reading that a student will come across in college as well as in their professional work lives.

Other changes include:

  • The overall test was shorted to three hours.
  • The essay portion was made optional and students were given a total of 50 minutes to complete it.
  • The ¼ guessing penalty was completely removed from the scoring model.

When Did SAT Score Levels Change?

The former SAT was officially administered in January 2016. The new SAT was administered for the first time in March of 2016.

  • The scoring levels significantly changed in 2016 when the overall test was renovated.
  • The scoring went from 600 to 2400 to 400 to 1600.
  • Sub scores and cross-test scores are made available for college admission considerations.

Preparing for the SAT

With all of the changes, preparing for the SAT can ensure you are up on the latest information and ready to get the highest score when you sit down to complete the test.

Don’t worry about a low test score the first time out. You can retake the SAT as many times as you like to get a higher score. Students who hunkered down and studied for a retake SAT exam increased their score by about 30 points.

Ways to Increase Your SAT Score Online

Those who used online and in-person study aides increased their score by 60 to 90 points on average. There are a wide-range of online study groups and aides that can help in every area of the SAT. That can be significant. An increase of just 50 points puts a student at a significantly higher percentile rank.

For instance, online practice test hubs can help you before and after you take the SAT. They provide solid sample questions that can familiarize you with the way questions are presented, so you can feel more confident when you sit down to take the test. They can also personalize a practice test. Send your SAT subject test percentiles and scores into on online academic resource such as Khan Academy, and they will evaluate you for strengths and weakness and send a free, personalized SAT practice plan based on your test results.

Register for the SAT

Once you decide to take the big test, you need to go online to the College Board and sign up. This will help you to get your SAT subject test percentiles and scores as soon as possible as well as send your scores to the colleges of your choice.

To start:

  • Login to your account on the College Board SAT website.
  • Go to the My Organizer button.
  • Once pressed, a new window opens asking for information. Have your SAT registration number available.

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About the Author

Kimberley McGee is an award-winning journalist with 20+ years of experience writing about education, jobs, business trends and more for The New York Times, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Today’s Parent and other publications. She graduated with a B.A. in Journalism from UNLV. Her full bio and clips can be seen at www.vegaswriter.com.