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How the SAT Came to Be

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In 2016, the SAT will celebrate its 90th birthday, but few people are familiar with the story behind this iconic college entrance exam.

In the 1800s, colleges relied on two methods to determine student preparedness. Colleges either designed their own entrance exams or accepted high school certificates as proof of readiness. That changed in 1899 when twelve elite Northeastern colleges and universities established the College Entrance Examination Board in an effort to exert more control over admissions criteria.

The group worked for two years to develop a standardized test, which was administered in 1901. This milestone marked the first time students could take one exam and use it to apply to multiple universities. Only 1000 students took the so-called College Boards, which covered nine subject areas (including Greek, Latin and physics) and consisted of a series of comprehensive essay tests administered over a five-day period. By 1925, however, roughly 10% (20,000) of all college applicants were taking the exam each year.

Meanwhile researchers and military institutions were developing IQ tests to assess learning capacity and leadership potential. By 1917, Harvard professor Robert Yerkes had created the Alpha and Beta Tests to measure basic verbal and math skills, general knowledge and the ability to follow directions. The tests were embraced by the US Army and administered to about 1.5 million recruits during World War I.

In 1926, roughly 8000 students took the first Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). It was developed by psychologist Carl Brigham and designed to measure learning aptitude rather than knowledge acquired through coursework and study. Heavily based on the Princeton Psychological Examination and the US Army Alpha Test, the SAT had two math sections (arithmetical problems and number series) and seven language sections (analogies, antonyms, artificial language, classification, definitions, logical inference and paragraph reading).

Subtest results were combined into a single SAT score between 200 and 800, calculated to reflect a comparative ranking rather than an objective individual score. Scores were sent directly to college admissions offices and not reported to applicants.

Harvard refused to consider SAT scores until 1934 when it began requiring the test for scholarship applicants. By 1941, most Northeastern private institutions had abandoned the College Boards and adopted the SAT for admissions.

Following World War II, the GI Bill led to an exponential increase in college applicants. By 1951, an estimated 80,000 people took the SAT each year. By 1961 that number increased to 800,000 as waves of baby boomers competed to get into colleges unprepared to handle the influx.

Throughout its history, the SAT has been modified to reflect changing standards. In the early decades, math subtests were repeatedly dropped then reintroduced and verbal subtests were consolidated and streamlined. By 1958, the test had been pared down to 150 questions (90 verbal, 60 math). It lasted 150 minutes and students were for the first time able to see their own test scores.

The SAT has undergone countless revisions in the intervening years and a revamped version is slated for release in 2016.

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