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Pencils Up: The Origin and Evolution of the SAT

A question: Which historical exams played a role in the development of the SAT?

[A] U.S.A. Military Army Alpha IQ exams in World War I
[B] IQ tests administered to children in 1905 France
[C] The U.S.A. Army-Navy College Qualifying Test during World War II
[D] A and C
[E] All of the Above

E is correct and worth one point. Before 2016, selecting any other answer would result in a ¼ penalty. But in 2016, a wrong answer yields neither penalty nor point gain.


Once upon a time, it began life as an acronym: SAT stood for “Scholastic Aptitude Test” and later the “Scholastic Assessment Test.” It has existed for eight decades; it hung around the Great Depression and partook in two World Wars.

The family tree of the SAT can be traced back to its ancestral roots overseas in 1905 France. French Psychologist Albert Binet established the Binet-Simon IQ standardized test to evaluate the mental ages and capacity of children to distinguish the gifted and those left behind in their studies.

A Princeton psychology professor, Carl Brigham, took notes from Binet. Brigham would integrate the Binet-Simon methods into the American framework. Brigham experimented with Binet’s studies through the U.S. Army Alpha Test, proto-SATs, to sort out the best military recruits during World War I. Perceiving its application to academia, Brigham adapted his test for the classrooms (“Where Did The Test Come From?”).

Thus, in 1926, the College Board debuted Brigham’s SAT, the Scholastic Aptitude Test to 8,040 students, departing from the traditional written exams (Jacobsen). Having experienced the quintessential four-hours-plus exam of today, modern students might find it amusing that the first SAT was 90 minutes with 315 questions of vocabulary and basic math and fill-in-the-blank analogies.

The SAT was a rising academic presence. Like an intrigued talent scout, Harvard University saw potential in the SAT in 1933. Harvard president, James Conant assigned his dean assistants, Henry Chauncey and Wilbur Bender, to find a means of selecting the best students for admission into Harvard. By 1934, the SAT was deemed to be the solution and Harvard required all applicants to take the SAT.

In 1943, the Army-Navy College Qualifying Test, a variation of the SAT, was distributed to 316,000 high school seniors. This verified that it could be mass-produced and administered to a large number of students. In 1948, Henry Chauncey founded the Educational Testing Service (ETS) with Conant as chairman of the board and the SAT as we know it today was born.

In 1957, a milestone was checked off: over half a million students had taken the SAT that year. To organize its flood of applicants, the University of California eventually made the SAT mandatory in 1967 under Chauncey’s recommendation. From then on, nearly all private universities followed suit.

By offering a standardized measurement of intellectual ability, the SAT helped minimize potential biases in the college admissions process. In the pre-SAT days, universities picked students from elite private schools without a test (“The History of the SAT”). But Chauncey encouraged the selection of applicants based on merits rather than one’s background (Woo, 2002). No test is perfect, but it was closer to the goal of objectivity, a chance to circumvent obstacles created by a student’s economic and social background.


Then emerged the ACT in 1959. Professor Everett Franklin Lindquist designed the ACT to be the answer to the perceived shortcomings of the SAT. The ACT, once called the American College Test, bore similar blueprints to the SAT with a few major distinctions: it covered classroom subject material rather than measuring one’s IQ, and it covered science and social studies. If the SAT was about general logic and critical thinking, the ACT focused on the knowledge contained in school textbooks (Fletcher, 2009). As a result, the ACT has been viewed a favorable alternative to the SAT.

Despite being competitors, the SAT and ACT aren’t hostile archenemies. In fact, the established differences in what these tests measure, ultimately led to their co-existence. By 2009, the College Board established the “Score Choice” policy, which allowed students to pick their best score to send to their desired colleges (although, exceptions like Cornell University, require all scores be sent). An SAT-taker could also take the ACT as a safety net, or vice-versa. Students opt to endure both ACT and SAT to further their chances of college acceptance, strategically submitting their most attractive scores (Lewin, 2013). If anything, a student’s calculated practice of both exams can render themselves a launchpad to future prospects.

Over time, demand for better test scores by parents and students has led to the emergence of test prep companies such as Kaplan, Prep Expert, and the Princeton Review. Parents enroll their children into prep courses to attain the skills necessary for beating these tests. Skills such as time management and deductive reasoning tricks, will bolster scores and collegiate prospects (Wasson, 2014).

Nowadays, the SAT has relinquished its identity from the old words in its bygone acronym, but remain synonymous with academic rites of passage. Scott Jeffe, a spokesman for the College Board in New York, said, “The SAT has become the trademark; it doesn’t stand for anything. The SAT is the SAT, and that’s all it is” (Applebome, 1997).

Shortly thereafter, controversy boils over, as low-income students struggle to afford testing fees. Many debated that the exam was not in sync with the actual grade point averages or a child’s intellectual abilities. The adage, “You’re more than a test score,” caught on.

As a result, the College Board has addressed those concerns, promising more fee waivers and extensive revamping. In the words of the College Board President David Coleman,

“We must confront the inequalities that now surround assessment, such as costly test preparation. It is time for the College Board to say in a clear voice the culture and practice of test preparation that now surrounds admissions exams drives the perception of inequality and injustice in our country.” (“College Board announces SAT overhaul…”)

By 2016, the SAT had undergone extensive revisions to accommodate the paradigm shift noted above, adopting a few cues from the ACT in the process. The Writing Section, a 2005 add-on, became optional, the 2400 score reverted back to the old 1600, and students were no longer penalized for wrong answers. A wrong answer now being equal to an unanswered question.

For many, the recent revisions are not a justification to not prepare or to skip the exams entirely. The SAT remains the key to admissions and scholarships. Colleges will continue to court high-scoring students, offering up millions in merit-based academic excellence scholarships. Thus, the absence of an SAT score would lessen the probability of college admission or the acquisition of scholarships, or financial aid.

In addition, a decent SAT score can diminish the unattractiveness of a low GPA. The standards may have loosened, but that doesn’t mean it negates the challenge of quality SAT or ACT score.

The SAT should not be construed as an accurate reading, the One True Perfect Determinator, of an individual’s academic fitness for college. It still provides a measurable examination that complements the qualities of a student. At best, it does not reduce a child to a test score number, but rather, offers strategic fodder and a buffer in one’s college application.

This writer’s takeaway: The SAT might change, but the needs of an organization to vet their student applicants, and those of the student to stand out from the crowd, have not.

That said, number 2 pencils are still going up.

Work Cited
Applebome, P. (1997, April 2). Insisting It’s Nothing, Creator Says SAT, Not S.A.T.
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Bruno, L. (2006, April 4). – More universities are going SAT-optional.
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Cheng, A. (2015, January 15). What does ACT stand for? The Complete Story –
PrepScholar. Retrieved October 23, 2016, from

College Board announces SAT overhaul to address inequality … (2014, March 5).
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Fletcher, D. (2009, December/January). A Brief History of Standardized Testing – TIME.
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Hickey, R. (2016, February 1). How to choose between the ACT and SAT | College Choice
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Jacobsen, E. (n.d.). A (Mostly) Brief History Of The SAT And ACT Tests.
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Lewin, T. (2013, August 2). More Students Are Taking Both the ACT and SAT – The New.
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The history of the SAT. (n.d.).
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Timeline of SAT Changes | College: Admission Possible. (n.d.).
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Wasson, J. (2014, September). Top 3 Benefits of PSAT, SAT & ACT Test Prep.
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Where Did The Test Come From? – History Of The Sat – A … (n.d.).
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Woo, E. (2002, December 5). Henry Chauncey, 97; Pioneered Use of SAT in College.
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Dr. Shaan Patel MD MBA

Written by Dr. Shaan Patel MD MBA

Prep Expert Founder & CEO

Shark Tank Winner, Perfect SAT Scorer, Dermatologist, & #1 Bestselling Author
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