03 Apr 2012

How would you do on the very first SAT ever given?

Ever wondered about the history of the SAT? Probably not… but it makes for an interesting blog post, nevertheless! How has the SAT changed over time?

A Brief History of the SAT

On June 23, 1926, the first SAT was administered to about 8,000 young men, most of whom applied to Yale University. It contained nine sub-tests, 7 with verbal content, and 2 that tested math. Time-limits were fierce: students had 97 minutes to answer 314 questions and were told, in rather bizarre language, that they should not expect to finish.

An outgrowth of IQ tests given to army recruits during World War 1, the original SAT aimed to objectively measure intelligence. By 1945, however, most question types rooted in intelligence testing were eliminated–subsumed by problems that more directly assessed learned academic skills. No longer a test of inborn intelligence, the SAT became a way to quantify college preparedness. This shift in emphasis harbingers the exam’s eventual name change; originally an acronym for “Scholastic Aptitude Test,” SAT no longer stands for anything at all.

An example of this shift can be seen by comparing a 1934 “six-choice antonym” question to contemporary sentence completion questions. “Six-choice antonym” questions required students to look at a group of four words and choose the two that are “opposite in meaning.” They are called “six-choice” questions because students select from six possible answer choices: (1, 2); (1, 3); (1, 4); (2, 3); (2, 4); and (3, 4).

Here is a medium-level “six-choice antonym” question:

gregarious (1)      solitary (2)      elderly (3)      blowy (4)

(Answer: 1, 2)

Source: A Historical Perspective on the SAT: 1926 – 2001
Click here for two additional early SAT questions

As an official College Board report explains, “six-choice antonym” questions act a bit like a puzzle. There are two basic ways to solve this type of question. The first requires students to look at the words as a group and instantly determine which two are opposites. Another approach has students cross-check the words, one by one. (Is (1) the opposite of (2)? If not, is (1) the opposite of (3)?” And so on.) Of course, this method takes a lot longer than the first method, and given the intense time-limits of the early SAT, students who employed it were at a serious disadvantage, regardless of the solidity and breadth of their vocabulary.

Today’s Sentence Completion questions place more emphasis on vocabulary and reading because their format allows students to anticipate precisely what kind of word is needed. As College Board’s official report states, “In the sentence completion item the candidate is asked to do a kind of thing which he does naturally when reading: to make use of the element of redundancy inherent in much verbal communication to obtain meaning from something less than the complete communication.” In other words, rather than a puzzle, sentence completion questions are akin to a matching game: we already know what the sentence means, so what words can we insert to maintain or reinforce this meaning?

Other changes to the SAT have similarly aimed to make the test a better measure of content knowledge. For example, time-limits are frequently reset to reduce the impact of time on test performance. As mentioned above, the first SAT gave students 97 minutes to complete 9 sub-tests. In 1928, the test was reduced to 7 sub-tests, and test-takers were given 115 minutes. The current test (as you hopefully know) is 10 sections, completed in 3 hours and 45 minutes.

Other changes, such as the 1994 addition of student-produced responses to the math section, strive to reduce the effectiveness of guessing, test-taking strategy and special preparation. (By special preparation, I mean last-minute, superficial memorization of formulas & facts, not reading widely and understanding math concepts).

Both the SAT and it’s place in society have evolved greatly since 1926. Once a marginal assessment taken only by 8,000 ivy-bound men, the SAT is now given to over 2,000,000 students annually and plays an essential role in scholarship and college admissions decisions. I hope that this small history helps you better understand the SAT’s purpose & point, as it has evolved over time.


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