You probably know that the SAT is one of two essential exams you can take to get into college. If you want to take the SAT, you also likely know that it consists of both math and reading questions. However, most students know very little about the SAT beyond these basic facts. Understanding what SAT stands for, the history of the exam and its purpose in the college application process can help you get familiar with the test.


Although the acronym stood for something in the past, SAT doesn't stand for anything now.

SAT Test Definition

Before diving into the history of the SAT, it's important to understand what it is today and what it means to many college hopefuls. The SAT is one of two standard entrance exams for high school students who want to attend college after graduation. The other test is the ACT.

The College Board is the nonprofit organization that administers and scores the SAT. Students register through the College Board, who contracts with testing centers that oversee learners on testing days. The College Board's team then scans the answer sheets, grades essays and reports scores to testers through their online accounts.

Who Is the College Board?

A board of trustees and several assembly councils made up of education professionals make decisions for the College Board. This nonprofit also administers the PSAT, CLEP, ACCUPLACER and Advanced Placement exams.

How the College Board Started

In the late 1800s before the SAT, many colleges and universities administered their own admissions exams. That meant that students who considered several universities would have to take separate tests for each school. Around the turn of the century, presidents from 12 universities got together to form the College Entrance Examination Board.

Today, that organization is the College Board. The college presidents set out to create a single entrance exam that all higher learning institutions could use to evaluate candidates. In 1901, they began administering the exams. However, the SAT wouldn't come around until 1926.

Carl Brigham Created the SAT

According to the Manhattan Review, the IQ test burst onto the scene in 1905, just a few years after the College Board came into being. This theory about human learning caused the College Board to question how it measured students. They needed to decide whether to measure a student's innate capacity for learning or how much information the learner gained in high school.

They appointed Carl Brigham to the board to work on this problem. Brigham previously wrote tests for the United States Army. He decided to write the test to assess the taker's ability to learn, or the raw intelligence.

After years of development, Brigham came up with the first SAT, which high school students took for the first time in 1926.

The Structure of the First SAT

Although the College Board formed and started initial testing in the late 1800s, high school students started taking the exam in 1926. The single exam consisted of 10 sections:

  1. Definitions
  2. Arithmetic
  3. Classification
  4. Artificial language
  5. Antonyms
  6. Number series completion
  7. Analogies
  8. Logical inference
  9. Paragraph reading
  10. Experimental section

The College Board combined the raw scores from each section to give learners scores between 200 and 800. The board then scaled the scores so that the average was 500. This scaling system hurt some students, so the board eventually dropped it.

What Did SAT Originally Stand For?

When high school students first started taking the exam in 1926, the SAT abbreviation meant Scholastic Aptitude Test. Since Brigham designed the test to assess raw intelligence, the word "aptitude" seemed to make sense. However, this approach had racist and classist overtones.

Scholars and writers have explored the racial biases in the SAT since the beginning. In recent years, publications like Teen Vogue and the National Education Association have published such critiques of the test's beginnings. The problem starts with the fact that the College Board assumed that intelligence was completely innate and based on genes.

SAT Racial Bias Controversy

Children of color at the time went to segregated schools that often lacked the resources that white schools had. As such, students of color learned less of the test's concepts and scored lower on the SAT. The College Board's insistence that the test measured inherent intelligence gave colleges a scientific reason to deny applicants who were not white.

To Brigham, the racist overtones of the test were a feature rather than a bug. He believed that African-American people could not learn in the same way that white people could. He was, of course, wrong.

Big Changes in the 1990s

The controversy surrounding the SAT and racism rolled on for years. In 1993, the College Board finally addressed some of the issue with a change in both name and the intention of the test. The College Board changed the SAT abbreviation to mean Scholastic Assessment Test. With this change, they began to see the exam as a measurement of how much a student learned in high school, not the candidate's ability to learn at all.

As ideas about learning and testing changed, the College Board altered the SAT. The idea was to measure what a student learned in high school, which could help colleges understand if they were ready for higher learning. During the 1990s, the College Board split the exam into two parts:

  • SAT I: Reasoning test
  • SAT II: Subject tests

In 1997, the board not only dropped the acronym altogether, but it also let go of the numbers related to the tests. The SAT became more recognizable to today's students because you can take the SAT or the SAT subject tests.

What Does SAT Mean Now?

Just four years after changing the name to Scholastic Assessment Test, the College Board realized that the new SAT abbreviation had another problem. "Assessment" and "test" are synonyms, which means they may as well have changed the name to STT or Scholastic Test Test.

After that realization, the board changed the official name to SAT. The letters no longer have meaning.

Changes in Scoring in 2016

The ways in which the College Board scores the SAT have changed several times over the years. The most recent significant difference came in 2016. Now, you complete two sections – one in mathematics and one in English language comprehension. You earn a score between 200 and 800 for each section for a total of up to 1600.

Before the 2016 changes, the highest score was 2400. The board also added the optional writing section and changed the way graders assess essays. Although spelling and grammar matter, the College Board focuses more on the complexity and thorough explanation of ideas.

Why Take the SAT?

Studying and preparing for the SAT can seem like a massive undertaking, especially when you are also worried about school, extracurricular activities, your social life, work and choosing a college. However, it's worth it to take the SAT or ACT because most colleges require one or the other for admissions.

Although some colleges and universities have moved away from requiring tests, institutions like this remain rare. Not taking either test limits your educational options. Other reasons to take the SAT seriously include:

  • You open doors for more scholarships.
  • Some entry-level jobs require SAT scores.
  • The SAT has less geometry and trigonometry than the ACT.
  • A few states require high school students to take it.
  • You get more time per question than the ACT.

Disadvantages of Taking the SAT

The bigoted problems with the SAT did not go away with a name change in the 1990s. The NEA asserts that the very idea of standardized testing puts some learners at a disadvantage. No matter how much the College Board tries to revise the test, it will continue to hurt:

  • Students with learning disabilities
  • English language learners
  • Students from underserved communities

In a system so fundamentally broken, it's no wonder that some people have moved to rebel against standardized testing as a whole. Educators across the country advocate for better assessment methods. In fact, several schools have made SAT score submissions optional.

The ACT in Response to SAT Problems

In 1959, Everett Franklin Lindquist created the American College Test, or ACT, in response to many of the problems he saw with the SAT. Lindquist thought that the SAT's claim to measure innate learning ability was deeply flawed. From the beginning, his test promised to only test what candidates learned in school.

The original ACT consisted of four sections that covered:

  • English
  • Math
  • Social studies
  • Natural sciences

The ACT had fewer troubles with identity and grew relatively quickly. By 1972, 1 million students had taken the exam. PrepScholar reports that now more students take the ACT than the SAT.

Benefits of Choosing the ACT

Although the SAT and the ACT are similar in many ways, a few meaningful differences remain. You can choose to take both tests to see on which you do better. However, some students may only want to take one test since many schools accept either score.

You may want to consider the ACT instead of the SAT if you:

  • Want to enter a science field
  • Do not want to support the SAT because of its troubling past
  • Want to take a test that every college and university (except Hampshire College) accepts
  • Do well in geometry
  • Want math to count as a lower percentage of your score
  • Want to use a calculator for the full math section

Schools That Don't Require the SAT

Despite all of the potential benefits of taking the SAT, the fact remains that some students do not take tests well. If you want to go to college, but the thought of taking this standardized test makes you nervous, you could choose to only apply to schools that do not require the SAT or ACT.

Many community colleges have open-enrollment policies in which all applicants gain acceptance if they hold high school diplomas or equivalents. Some universities also let students decide whether or not to send test results, including:

  • Bates College
  • George Washington University
  • Sarah Lawrence College
  • University of Chicago
  • University of Iowa
  • Wake Forest University
  • Wesleyan University

Hampshire College is currently the only school that will reject any scores that applicants send. The school says that even candidates who send perfect scores will not sway the school's decision.

Know Your Test

Regardless of which test you choose to take, it's important that you know as much about the test as possible. Knowing the history of the SAT can put your test in context and help you understand what the graders want to measure today. Furthermore, you may choose to not take any entrance exam, or you may choose the ACT instead. Knowledge is indeed power.

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