What Does the SAT Stand For?
Whether you’re preparing for it, just took it, took it a long time ago, or are hearing a lot about having to take it in a couple years, the SAT is this weird monolith in contemporary educational culture. But nobody seems to know what the SAT stands for. Even when you take the test, there’s no actual acronym on the handbook; they just call it the “SAT.” So what does the SAT stand for? What’s the story behind it, anyway?
Further Reading: Why Do We Have Standardized Tests?
Origins of the SAT
So before colleges got everything standardized nationwide, they all had their hodgepodge of different testing mechanisms to determine who got to go to their campuses. Given that many recommend kids apply to like 7-10 schools, that would mean (under the old system), you’d take like 10 tests just to get into one school. In fairness, the same thing already happens, with college applications being a stupidly convoluted system. Many schools require the submission of their own unique essays and all that jazz anyway (especially “top tier” institutions). Also they charge you like $60 or more per application if you don’t get fees waived.
10 schools is a lot to apply to for some; lest you have the time and money for it.
Anyway, the purpose of the SAT was, in part, to reduce that testing clutter. Which is nice. It was also designed to be a kind of perfectly neutral exam. The SAT was created by psychology professor Carl Brigham to measure a college candidate’s potential. You know, opposed to one’s financial status or otherwise. Which, we know is not the case in practice today. But, you may argue, back then the SAT was different. Surely the early iterations of the SAT were more bias free, right?
Well the SAT was created in the 1920s. Given that it’s 2020 and we still haven’t fixed racism, that’s a pretty tall order. But let’s explore.
Unfortunately for us, Brigham was a eugenicist–a subscriber to the philosophy of improving the human race through selective breeding. It’s essentially the foundation behind the Nazi myth of the “Aryan Master Race.” According to Brigham, intelligence was an innate trait. You couldn’t “train” someone to be smarter. Thus, the SAT was designed to actually serve as a gatekeeper of higher education so only the “smartest ethnicity” would have access to it.
According to a teacher at the Newark Academy in Livingston, tying intelligence to ethnicity was an incredibly desirable thing.
“For some college officials, an aptitude test, which is presumed to measure intelligence, is appealing since at this time intelligence and ethic origin are thought to be connected, and therefore the results of such a test could be used to limit the admissions of particularly undesirable ethnicities.”
~Erik Jacobsen, 1929
Educators acknowledged that a test could be used to weed out undesirable ethnicities by asking questions geared towards specific ethnicities.
Brigham would call the early iterations of this test the Scholastic Aptitude Test. So we’ve found the origins of the name!
Administering the First Tests
The very first iterations of the SAT were passed out in 1926 to around 8,000 participants. This came in response to WWI, wherein standardized tests like the SAT were used to segregate soldiers.
The SAT in its early 1926-1930s iterations was heavily geared towards multiple choice. As such, it drew a lot of controversy for promoting guesswork and memorization–opposed to the intention of aptitude and potential. Plus, even in the 1930s, people were criticizing the test questions for being biased against nonwhite test takers.
But the SAT barreled on anyways, being used in college admissions for the first time in 1934–once Harvard administrators took interest in this new test. After Harvard adopted it, most post-secondary institutions would follow.
Ever since its inception, the SAT has disproportionately failed test takers of color. Coinciding with earlier assessments ruling that the SAT could be used as a tool to phase out “undesirable ethnicities,” this wasn’t a great look. Especially in the contemporary socio-political landscape, where we’ve generally concluded eugenics is bad.
So it makes sense that the SAT would try to re-brand itself. The Collegeboard (a corporation most people hate) re-branded it as the Scholastic Assessment Test to pull away from the eugenicist roots. Since aptitude was rooted in eugenics and didn’t actually test subject mastery, the SAT basically inverted itself so it did reflect subject mastery.
Then the Collegeboard realized that didn’t work, and has since just dubbed the test the SAT.
So what does the SAT stand for? That’s right, SAT doesn’t actually stand for anything, because the Collegeboard realized that the SAT couldn’t test for aptitude or subject mastery. Today, it’s just three meaningless letters with roots in a guy who thought his test could discover a master race.
Here’s a quiz about going through the primary, secondary, and post-secondary schooling systems.