SAT and College Entrance Exams

The founding of the College Entrance Examination Board (later renamed the College Board) in 1900 culminated two decades of attempts to standardize the college admissions process. CEEB encouraged colleges to accept additional HIGH SCHOOL subjects, and replaced idiosyncratic entrance requirements and exams with uniform ones. But contemporary critics noted these tests measured subject mastery, and did not predict college performance–a need at colleges seeking to limit enrollments after World War I.

In contrast, the psychological or intelligence tests, designed by E. L. Thorndike of Columbia University, and administered to the armed forces during World War I, seemed to predict success in college. After the war, several colleges added these exams to their admissions requirements. The predictive power of intelligence tests, claimed advocates, permitted burgeoning high schools greater curricular latitude to address the needs of the majority of students who would not attend college. Admissions of ficers at colleges wishing to favor students from "old stock" nationality and ethnic groups seized upon the association between intelligence test scores on one hand and race and ethnicity on the other posited by Princeton's Carl Campbell Brigham in A Study of American Intelligence (1923). But Brigham, who became the key designer of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, disavowed this association after CEEB began to offer this psychological exam in 1926. Meritocrats later embraced the SAT as likely to unearth "diamonds in the rough." Initially dominated by verbal questions, the SAT separated math and verbal scores into two separate exams in 1931–the first of several format changes.

Neither CEEB's first subject-based entrance exams nor the SAT took the academic world by storm. Most colleges continued to base admissions decisions on high school transcripts and the principal's recommendation until after World War II. The number of students taking the SAT remained under 10,000 through the 1930s; the proportion of colleges requiring the SAT or equivalent exams for admission increased from less than one percent to 15 percent between 1932 and 1944. CEEB began to offer a Junior (later Preliminary) SAT during the 1930s; it dropped its traditional essay entrance exams in 1942.

The SAT competed with objective achievement examinations administered by the Cooperative Test Service of the American Council on Education, and with exams offered by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. In 1947, CEEB, ACE, and the Carnegie Foundation turned all exam-related activities over to the newly founded Educational Testing Service, which offered the SAT and the achievement exams (later called the SAT II, and administered in 23 subject areas by 2003). In 1955, CEEB also assumed responsibility for Advanced Placement exams–developed by the Fund for the Advancement of Education, a Ford Foundation affiliate–that assessed mastery of college-level work completed in high school.

CEEB and ETS had a clear field until 1959, when E. F. Lindquist and Ted McCarrel, both of the University of Iowa, founded the American College Testing Services (later ACT, Inc.). The ACT Assessment–often seen as more aligned with the high school curriculum–examined student knowledge in English, math, reading, and science reasoning. This exam proved especially popular where College Board influence was weak.

Expanded demand for college among the large baby boomer cohort, and a corresponding increase in selectivity at many colleges contributed to the rapid growth of the SAT and ACT, beginning in the 1960s. The University of California adopted the SAT in 1968, thereby nationalizing the exam. In the 2000–2001 school year, 1.3 million high school seniors took the SAT (now SAT I). About one million students took the ACT exam during the 2000–2001 school year, as the test remained popular in the Midwest.

By the 1970s, the SAT and ACT tests often were the decisive admissions criteria, despite sponsor insistence that colleges consider multiple factors. The SAT raised several controversial issues for selective colleges. Was the modest predictivity the SAT added to the significant correlation between high school and freshman college grades worth the trouble of preparing for and taking the test? Could the many high schools devoting significant time to SAT preparation make better use of this time? What explained the decline in SAT scores between the 1960s and 1980s? The increased popularity of the SAT, a College Board commission noted in On Further Examination (1977), explained some, but not all, of the decline. Could coaching improve SAT scores? The College Board claimed it could not, but a thriving coaching industry disagreed. Was the SAT biased against certain racial and cultural groups? Group scores for African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans were consistently lower than the scores of whites and Asian Americans. What, precisely, did the SAT measure–intelligence, achievement, or merely membership in the white middle class? Criticism that aptitude remained a synonym for intelligence led the College Board to rename the exam twice in the 1990s: first to Scholastic Assessment Test, then to SAT. The College Board recentered SAT scores in 1995 to account for demographic changes occurring after prior norms were established.

In 2001, University of California president Richard C. Atkinson charged that the SAT I contributed less than the SAT II to predicting freshman grades at his university, adding that any entrance exam should help strengthen the high school curriculum. The College Board satisfied its largest customer by promising a revamped examination in 2005 that replaced the analogy section–antonyms had been eliminated already–with additional critical reading passages. The new SAT would also include a twenty-five-minute essay question. The math section would eliminate quantitative comparisons, and add questions based on Algebra II courses.

The intense debate over the SAT continues. A predictive exam, argue the SAT's supporters, allows talented students to overcome curricular and financial disparities between high schools, while compensating for grade inflation. Critics note the correlation between SAT scores and socioeconomic status, and the stress experienced in preparing for and taking the exam. The 2005 reforms, in any event, moved the SAT I towards assessing subject mastery–the goal CEEB was originally established to address.

See also: Intelligence Testing; IQ.


Brigham, Carl Campbell. 1923. A Study of American Intelligence. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

College Entrance Examination Board. 1977. On Further Examination: Report of the Advisory Panel on the Scholastic Aptitude Test Score Decline. Princeton, NJ: College Entrance Examination Board.

Fuess, Claude M. 1950. The College Board: Its First Fifty Years. New York: Columbia University Press.

Johanek, Michael C., ed. 2001. A Faithful Mirror: Reflections on the College Board and Education in America. New York: The College Board.

Lehmann, Nicholas. 1999. The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Valentine, John A. 1987. The College Board and the School Curriculum. New York: College Entrance Examination Board.

Wechsler, Harold S. 1977. The Qualified Student: A History of Selective College Admission in America, 1870–1970. New York: Wiley-Interscience.