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Behind the SAT and ACT

Just where did these important tests come from?

· College Admission,ACT - SAT,Standardized Testing

The school year is in full swing and some students are already looking ahead to next year -- especially those preparing for high school graduation and college. An important step on the road to college is the taking of standardized admissions tests like the SAT and the ACT. With so much emphasis placed on these test scores, it’s worth understanding exactly what you or your students are taking.

A brief history of the tests brings us back to 1926, when university administrators sought a way to evaluate the innate abilities of potential students (PBS). Called the “Scholastic Aptitude Test,” the SAT was designed to measure some sort of underlying biological factor that would indicate whether a student was academically talented.

The SAT became so popular that in 1956, the “American College Test” or ACT was created to provide an alternative (Lindsay 2015). As opposed to measuring inherent ability, the ACT was designed to test students on information that they actually learned in school.

But the world has certainly changed since 1926, and the tests serve different purposes. For example, the SAT’s governing board has shied away from the test’s original claim to measure innate ability. Now they purport to measure a student’s “developed reasoning,” which improves with experience over time. The ACT remains focused on testing students’ problem-solving and reasoning abilities, rather than emphasizing memorized facts or rote knowledge.

Above all, the ultimate goal of these standardized tests is to predict how successful a student will be in their first year of college. Both tests feature “college-ready indicators” in addition to overall scores, which identify unique benchmarks in each subject area. If a student meets the benchmark score in any given subject -- regardless of their overall total score for the test -- they are more likely to succeed in that subject in college.

However, according to a 2015 article in Education Week, there are signs that it may be time to reevaluate the efficacy of the tests (Adams 2015). Most obviously, performance on both the SAT and ACT has either stagnated or dropped since 2010. Furthermore, both tests have persistent problems with significant disparities Many blame the fact that students of lower socioeconomic status may have less access to test prep materials and resources. Others simply blame the “flatness” and objectivity of standardized tests. Many hope that revolutions in technology will open the door to more robust and individualized evaluation strategies, including the use of digital portfolios.

How else might we level the playing field when it comes to evaluating students for college admissions? What other predictors should we be using to evaluate students’ college readiness? If you have any good ideas, share them in the comments.


Adams, Caralee J (2015). 2015 SAT, ACT Scores Suggest Many Students Aren’t College-Ready. Accessed 28 September 2016 from

PBS. What Does the SAT Really Measure? Accessed 28 September 2016
Lindsay, Samantha (2015). The History of the ACT Test. Accessed 28 September 2016 from

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