The Past, Present, and Future of the SAT: Implications for College Admissions

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A new version of the SAT is scheduled to be administered for the first time in March of 2005. What will the test look like and what are the implications for college admissions? This article details the history of the SAT as well as the significance of the proposed changes.

In a speech at the American Council on Education's Annual Meeting in February 2001, Richard Atkinson, President of the University of California system, asked the University's Academic Senate to consider changing the test score requirements for admissions. President Atkinson proposed to make SAT-I scores optional and to consider using either an expanded set of SAT-II tests or other curriculum-based tests when making admissions decisions (Atkinson 2001). As a result of this recommendation, in June 2002, the College Board announced a major revision to the SAT-I to become effective with the March 2005 administration of the exam. Although the University of California has yet to alter its admissions requirements, further deliberation and action is all but certain. Given the significant planned changes to the SAT, it would be useful to examine the history of this testing program. This can provide a useful roadmap to where the SAT is headed and to what other possible changes might occur in the future. In addition, because much is already known about the format of the revised SAT-I for 2005, the possible implications of the new test on the admissions process are delineated.

The Key Organizations

Throughout its history, the SAT has been linked to two organizations, the College Board and the Educational Testing Service (ETS). The College Board, formerly known as the College Entrance Examination Board (CEEB), is the national membership organization of more than 4,200 schools, colleges, and universities. Founded in 1900 and presently headquartered in New York City, the College Board owns the rights to the SAT, and makes policy decisions regarding the testing program on behalf of its member institutions. The original mission of the College Board was to facilitate communication between secondary schools and colleges and universities to ensure that the curricula in high school courses prepared students adequately for college-level work.

Educational Testing Service, headquartered outside of Princeton, New Jersey, was founded in 1947 and is the world's largest non-profit testing and research company. ETS has over 3,000 employees and reported nearly $1 billion in revenues in its latest fiscal year. ETS was set up as an independent entity when the College Board recognized that the SAT (along with several other testing programs) became too large and complex for the College Board to handle on its own. ETS develops, validates, and scores the SAT for the College Board and has done so since the company's inception.

Historical Background

In 1901, the first tests given by the College Board were administered to 973 students with essay exams in nine subjects. These students were applying to a small number of selective colleges, almost all of which were located in New York state. In the 1920s, influenced by the intelligence tests developed for the military in World War I, the philosophy behind admissions testing shifted. A new type of admissions test, later named the Scholastic Aptitude Test (now simply known as the SAT-I), advocated by then-Harvard President James Bryant Conant, was intended to reduce the impact of family income and private schooling on students' performance. Some of the academic psychologists, such as Carl Brigham, who developed the military intelligence tests, also worked on the SAT. It is because of these historical connections and influences that the SAT has long been considered to be a type of intelligence test. In 1926, the first SAT was given to 8,040 students. The test was composed mainly of multiple-choice questions and consisted of nine subtests, although only a single total score was reported. …