The SAT: A History

first sat test

The history of the SAT test is rich, dating as far back as the late 1800s. How has it lasted this long and remains the mother of all standardized tests for college admissions? It has remained, in part, because it adapted to meet the evolving standards and needs of the college admissions process.

History of the SAT: "In 1900, presidents from 12 leading universities formed the College Board."In 1900, presidents from 12 leading universities formed the College Entrance Examination Board, with the goal to streamline the college admissions process. Some of the schools that participated and are still in existence today include:

The College Board formed with the aim to develop a universal way to determine whether students were prepared for college, and thus, the first standardized exam was born in 1901—one entrance exam for several universities as opposed to a unique exam for each school’s admissions process.

The first college entrance examinations were held the week of June 17, 1901, and consisted of essay questions in English, French, German, Latin, Greek, history, mathematics, chemistry, and physics.

Here are sample questions from the first college entrance exam in 1901:

1) Write the rules for the following constructions and illustrate each by a Latin sentence :

a. Two uses of the dative.
b. The cases used to indicate the relations of place.
c. The cases used with verbs of remembering.
d. The hortatory (or jussive) subjunctive.
e. The supine in um.

1) A balloon contains 300 cubic meters of hydrogen, each cubic meter of which weighs 90 grams. The material of the balloon weighs 250 kilograms. Each cubic meter of the surrounding air weighs 7290 grams. How many kilograms in addition to its own weight will the balloon lift?

2) Describe a method of finding the specific gravity of a solid heavier than water; of a liquid.

The First “SAT”

During World War I, the Army tested recruits’ intelligence via the Army Alpha, the first mass-administered IQ test. After the war, a psychologist named Carl Brigham adapted the test for use as a college admissions test, and eventually an assistant dean at Harvard tasked with finding a way to evaluate scholarship applicants met Brigham and recommended the College Board use the SAT as a uniform exam.

Over the years, many things have changed about the test, including the words behind the acronym, but when the first form of the SAT was administered on June 23, 1926, the acronym stood for “Scholastic Aptitude Test,” and it included nine subtests featuring 315 questions in a mere 97 minutes, as opposed to today’s nearly four-hour examination.

Since it was challenging for students to complete more than 300 questions in an hour and a half, in 1928, the test was reduced from nine subtests to seven, and the time was expanded to 115 minutes. By 1929, the test was yet again reduced to six subtests, so the early versions were trying to accommodate students’ ability to complete the test on time.

Take the very first SAT here.

SAT Through the Years

After the test secured its initial footing in those formative years, the SAT began to experiment with different structures. Math as a subject was completely removed from the test at one point, then re-added, then taken away again, which is interesting considering that Niche users report math being the most challenging part of the SAT.

When it comes to the verbal portion, analogies were taken out and then re-added, and paragraph reading was replaced with reading comprehension, while double definition questions were swapped with sentence completions.

Time limits also were frequently adjusted. Between 1946 and 1957, the SAT consisted of somewhere between 107 and 170 questions with time limits that ran between 90 and 100 minutes. In 1958, the test was 90 questions with the allotted time of 75 minutes.

Although it was originally called the “Scholastic Aptitude Test,” creators were worried about confusion between the SAT’s current function (college admissions) and its flirtation with serving as an IQ test. So in 1994, the name was changed to “Scholastic Assessment Test.”

Niche Poll: "81% of Niche users don't believe the ACT or SAT measure intelligence."Also in 1994, in terms of structural changes, antonyms were removed, but there was an increase in passage-based comprehension questions to stress the importance of reading. With math, the SAT made two changes in 1994: Questions were added where the student had to produce the result on their own (no multiple choice), and the use of calculators was permitted.

Toward the end of the decade, the SAT experienced yet another name change. In a 1997 statement to the New York Times, the College Board said: “Please note that SAT is not an initialism; it does not stand for anything.”

In 2005, with the rising number of perfect scores, those that worked on the SAT attempted to make the test more difficult. While analogies (verbal) and quantitative comparisons (math) were removed, an essay portion was added to measure students’ writing abilities. The verbal section’s name was changed to “critical reading.”

SAT Scores for Colleges

There have been 20 different SAT scales since 1926, and until 2005, the SAT remained mostly unchanged (except for adjustments to calibrations and section questions) and consisted of a 1600-point scale, with verbal and math sections each worth between 200 and 800 points. However, in 2005, the long-term 1600-point scale was replaced by a 2400-point scale, with students now able to score a possible 800 points in three sections, including mathematics, critical reading, and written communication.

In terms of raw scores, here’s how the SAT is scored:

  • Correct answer = 1 point
  • Incorrect answer = -¼ point, 0 points subtracted for incorrect student-produced response (math)
  • No answer = no point

The raw scoring generally works the same for Subject Tests, except with incorrect answers, where it is:

  • -¼ point for each 5-choice question
  • -⅓ point for each 4-choice question
  • -½ point for each 3-choice question

Check out the mean SAT score by year from 1972 to 2010.

The Bottom Line

The long history of the SAT started with an initial premise that has been able to survive for nearly 100 years, but it also has shown ability to adapt to changing times, accommodating technology and societal trends.

More than 1.66 million high school students take the SAT every year, and many colleges require the SAT (or ACT) for admissions, though there is a growing number of test-optional colleges.

In 2012, the SAT started requiring students to upload photos of themselves in order to register for the exams as a way to combat cheating. And despite 21 percent of Niche users reporting taking only the ACT, 27 percent of users report taking only the SAT, too, so it’s still considered the top standardized test by many students.