The SAT: the origin and the present

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The term “test” has the history of more than a thousand years. Ancient China was the first country in the world used a standardized test nationwide, called imperial examination. The test has come to the United States for more than one hundred years. From the past to now, among all these tests like IQ test, High School Placement Test, and ITBS(Iowa Test of Basic Skills), the SAT definitely plays an important role in the American test system. The SAT is a widely used standardized test administered and developed by ETS and College Board for America’s most college and university admissions to choose students from high schools each year. This essay explores two questions about the origin and the present of the SAT. First: what were the original reasons behind the creation of the SAT in the 1920s? Second: why have a growing number of colleges adopted SAT optional policies?

I argue that the original reason behind the creation of the SAT in 1962 was to make more equalities which allow colleges to identify the students not only from wealthier cities and suburbs but also from rural areas in America. This standardized test is to measure student’s aptitude, which tests innate abilities the students are born with, regardless of educational background. While starting with Bates College in 1984, more and more elite colleges are going SAT optional or even don’t require the SAT scores.[1] They find SAT scores can’t precisely predict students’ academic performance in colleges. They also want more diverse student groups and expand access to more students who might historically be underrepresented. In addition, they think the SAT scores are biased, coachable, and creating inequalities.[2]

The SAT was developed, scored and published by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and administered and constructed by the College Board.[3] The College Board was first founded in 1900 as College Entrance Examination Board (CEEB), consisting a membership of twelve most elite universities and colleges, such as Columbia University, New York University, Barnard College, and etc.[4] The primary purpose of the Board was to provide a uniform admissions exam, “college boards”, on different subjects to “perfect the close fit between New England boarding schools and Ivy League colleges.” With the support of CEEB, the American Council on Education (ACE), and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Educational Testing Service was founded in 1947, which now is the largest nonprofit administrator of standardized test.[5]

The first SAT created in 1926 was redefined from the Army IQ Test. In 1905, the idea of “intelligence quotient” (IQ) was invented by Alfred Binet, a French psychologist and named by Lewis Terman, a Stanford professor. They believed that the IQ test could measure the innate capacity of the brain. Thus, students could be sort into different intelligence levels and taught correspondingly to their IQ.[6] During the First War World War, when Robert Yerkes, a Harvard professor, applied IQ tests to the Army with nearly two million recruits, IQ test did make some big process. Since up till 1917, psychologists believed that IQ could be only measured on one on one basis. It was critical to create an intelligence test that could have been taken by such a massive scale. In addition, these 1.75 million IQ tests produced a large database to be analyzed on.[7]

Looking at the database of testing results, Carl Campbell Brigham, a psychology professor at Princeton, figured out that “the test results as a whole were like a photograph of American culture, so faithfully did they reproduce the social order.” In addition, he figured out that these differences were innate that were born with the people, not environmentally.[8] His idea impressed the CEEB. In 1925, College Board hired Brigham to develop a universal entrance test for college admission. By 1926, Brigham transformed the Army Test into the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) which could be called “Army Test 2.0” with harder questions. The SAT majorly focused on word familiarity with some mathematical calculations and identification of shapes and facial expressions.[9] In June 23rd, 1926, 8040 high school students took the first SAT test. At the same time, the Army allowed Brigham to use the SAT to test applicants to West Point. However, at that time, the SAT was not for admission use, but to see the validity by comparing the scores with the test takers’ freshman grades. Not until 1933, Brigham had enough data to prove that the SAT could predict students’ academic performance.[10]

The idea of meritocracy emphasize the equities brought by the standardized test like the SAT. Michael Young who created the word “meritocracy”, argued that “IQ scores and merit are the same things – in fact that universal IQ testing followed by educational sorting is the only possible way of organizing a society so as to provide the fair opportunity to all”.[11]

Standing for “Scholastic Aptitude Test”, the SAT is used to predict how well a student can perform in school based on the innate ability while “aptitude” means the natural ability to do something.[12] On the other hand, achievement test examined what the student has already learned while “achievement” is defined as “a thing done successfully, typically by effort, courage or skill”.[13] In 1933, James Bryant Conant, the president of Harvard University from the 1930s to 1950s, assigned two of his colleagues to find an aptitude test for the new Harvard scholarships. Conant didn’t like achievement tests since he believed that they favored the rich students whose parents could buy them “top-flight high-school instruction” or expensive tutors. He wanted the smart kids from every corner of the society.[14] One of the colleagues was Henry Chauncey who later became the first president of the ETS. He brought the SAT to Conant and in 1934, Conant chose the SAT to be the Harvard scholarship test. In 1941, the SAT was required for all applicants to Harvard. He suggested that “the SAT, in other words, would finally make possible the creation of a natural aristocracy”.[15] Before the SAT, the students in the America’s higher education were mostly selected on the families’ economic statuses. With the SAT, Conant hoped that everyone regardless of the background should have the equal opportunity to go to college and be educated. This allowed the students from every part of the America to have equal chances to go to colleges.

Forty years later, believing that standardized tests do not predict student’s college success accurately, Bates College was the first elite college to go SAT-optional in 1984.[16] In these twenty years, Bates had their own research, keeping track on the students who submitted the SAT and those who didn’t. The result was that the SAT submitters and non-submitters had almost the same GPA at Bates.[17] In a recent research, “Defining Promise: Optional Standardized Testing Policies in American College and University Admissions”, “with almost 123,00 students at 33 widely differing institutions, the differences between submitters and non-submitters are five one-hundredths of a GPA point and six-tenths of one percent in graduation rates. By any standard, these are trivial differences.”[18] Instead, high school GPA could be a better predictor of students’ academic performance in colleges. The study shows that students with higher high school GPAs generally continually perform well in colleges though they might have lower SAT score. In contrast, the students performed weakly in high school had lower GPAs and graduate at lower rates.

The standardized test could also narrow the access for students to higher education. Going test optional, colleges now can choose students from a bigger pool.[19] According to the explanation of George Washington University which went SAT-optional this year, “The test-optional policy should strengthen and diversify an already outstanding applicant pool and will broaden access for those high-achieving students who have historically been underrepresented at selective colleges and universities, including students of color, first-generation students, and students from low-income households.”[20] The study pointed that non-submitters are mostly minority students, women, and students with Learning Differences.[21] As a successful example, Knox College located in Illinois has abandoned both SAT and ACT scores since 2006. As a result, the college accepted its most diverse student class ever, with twenty percent more applicants.[22] In 2015, Trinity College also joins SAT optional movement. Trinity states that “Beginning this year, Trinity College will incorporate the evaluation of personality traits and characteristics that research has proven predict student success. Grades and academic coursework help admission counselors understand academic achievement, but we know this is only one part of a student’s complex story. Attributes such as curiosity, optimism, persistence, grit, and creativity (to name a few) are strong predictors of success in college and beyond.”[23]

More and more colleges find that away from the original purpose of the creation of the SAT, the SAT fail to create the equal opportunities for students. It actually brings inequalities and gaps among students. For example, some students begin to prepare for the SAT five years in advance and spent thousands of dollars to take tutor programs.[24] Then the richer students who are able to take tutors will have higher scores than those who don’t. Then the SAT seems to favor the rich students instead of measuring the true ability on an equal footing. The misuse of the standardized test blocks those qualified students from the higher education. It heavily impacts on minority students and those from low-income families.



In the graph, we can clearly see the white test-takers, in general, have a higher score than black test-takers. What’s more, the students with higher family income do better than those with lower family income. So the background between racial and family background do impact how students perform on the SAT. Both ethnicity groups and socioeconomic abilities create gaps between applicants. If not racial, culture bias exists in the SAT too. In the multiple choice questions, some inner-city black students don’t have the knowledge which might be considered as common sense for other students.  [26] In another report “Is the SAT biased”, it indicates that the SAT is sex biased which the multiple choice format seems to favor boys. The data shows on average women score 61 points lower than men while the same young women have higher GPA in their freshmen years than men do. Other studies identify the gender bias of the math portion of the SAT in particular. [27]

In theory, the creation of SAT was to help colleges identify students in both rural America with few schools and wealthier parts and give the equal opportunities to all the students. However, nowadays, the SAT creates the inequalities among the applicants which is totally opposite to its original reason. With other concerns like the accuracy of the prediction of the SAT and the limited student groups, more and more elite colleges are going test-optional. Starting from this year, the SAT is newly designed into a different structure. Will the new SAT fix the problems of inequalities, going back to its original purpose and become a stronger prediction of students’ academic performances in colleges? The result remains to be seen in the few years. Unless the new SAT makes some changes, the number of colleges go test-optional will increase.



[1] Bates News, “20 Years of Optional SATs,” 11:33am,

[2] Marilyn Gilroy, “Colleges Making SAT Optional as Admissions Requirement,” Education Digest 73, no. 4 (December 2007).

[3] “About ETS: Frequently Asked Questions,” accessed May 6, 2016,

[4] College Entrance Examination Board of the Middle States and Maryland. Plan of Organization for the College Entrance Examination Board of the Middle States and Maryland and a Statement of Subjects in Which Examinations Are Proposed. [n.p.], 1900.

[5] “History of Educational Testing Service – FundingUniverse,” accessed May 6, 2016,

[6] Nicholas Lemann, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (Macmillan, 2000): 18-19.

[7] TEDx Talks, How the Army Gave Us the SAT | Frank Donoghue | TEDxEdina, accessed May 6, 2016,

[8] Nicholas Lemann, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (Macmillan, 2000): 30.

[9] Ibid., 31.

[10] Ibid., 33.

[11] Ibid., 117..

[12]“Aptitude Definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary,” accessed May 6, 2016,

[13]“Achievement: Definition of Achievement in Oxford Dictionary (American English) (US),” accessed May 6, 2016,

[14] Nicholas Lemann, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (Macmillan, 2000): 38.

[15] Ibid,. 43.

[16] News, Bates. “20 Years of Optional SATs,” 11:33am.

[17] News, Bates. “NPR Reports on ‘first-of-Its-Kind’ National Study by Hiss ’66 Challenging the Value of Standardized Tests,” 12:25pm.



[19] Michael Robinson and James Monks, “Making SAT Scores Optional in Selective College Admissions: A Case Study,” Economics of Education Review 24, no. 4 (August 2005): 393–405, doi:10.1016/j.econedurev.2004.06.006.

[20] “Standardized Test Scores Will Be Optional for GW Applicants.” GWToday. Web. 27 July. 2016.

[21] William C. Hiss and Valerie W. Franks, 3.

[22] Marilyn Gilroy, “Colleges Making SAT Optional as Admissions Requirement,” Education Digest 73, no. 4 (December 2007): 37.

[23]“Trinity Joins Test-Optional Movement and Encourages Students and Counselors to Share a Deeper Narrative,” accessed May 6, 2016,

[24] Marilyn Gilroy, 37.

[25] Ezekiel J.1 Dixon-Román, Howard T.2 Everson, and John J.3 McArdle, “Race, Poverty and SAT Scores: Modeling the Influences of Family Income on Black and White High School Students’ SAT Performance,” Teachers College Record 115, no. 4 (April 2013): 1–33.

[26]“How Changes in the SAT Will Affect College-Bound Blacks.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 36 (2002): 12–13. doi:10.2307/3133904.

[27] Joan L. Eberle and Gary L. Peltier, “Is the SAT Biased? A Review of Research,” American Secondary Education 18, no. 1 (1989): 19.

One thought on “The SAT: the origin and the present”

  1. Genxing, this essay raises two important questions about the original purpose of the SAT in the 1920s, and the reasons why so many colleges have recently made it optional. The thesis clearly lays out two arguments: an original vision of testing to promote equality across different schools, and a later recognition of inherent inequalities in this testing tool. A stronger thesis would have gone one step further by emphasizing how an “equalizer” from one decade became a symbol of “inequality” in a later decade. In the body of the essay, you persuasively showed how early SAT testing at West Point was used for research about predictability, though not in admissions decisions. Also, this essay does a good job of covering both the past and present on this issue.

    Two small but important points: When writing about the past, I recommend that students consistently use the past tense. Also, be careful not to accidentally put words written by present-day scholar (such as Nicholas Lehmann) into the mouths of historical actors (such as Conant), as you seem to do in footnote 15.

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