The Ever-Changing SAT

Dr. Callie Batts Maddox

Changes to the SAT are not new—

the test has been constantly evolving since its inception in 1926

As many parents and students already know, the newly designed SAT is ready to launch in the spring of 2016. Revised by the College Board, the organization responsible for administering the SAT, the new test drops the required essay (it’s now optional), reverts back to a 1600-point scoring system, and emphasizes evidence-based reading and writing, amongst other changes (Balf, 2014). We will write later about specific changes to the SAT and strategies to best prepare for them, but I want to make the point here that the SAT is not a static and monolithic beast removed from the social, economic, and educational contexts within which it exists. As Weissglass (1998) notes, “the SAT is generally accepted as an inevitable and proper fixture of US education” (p. 1), an unchanging and taken-for-granted rite of passage for students who want to attend college. Yet the test is merely a product of human endeavor—designed and evaluated by fallible individuals—and with that comes mistakes, reinvention, and change.

Millions of American high school students have prepared for, and stressed about, the SAT under the impression that the test will “determine your fate in life” (Lemann, 1999, p. 5). Performing well on the SAT is certainly important in opening up college choices and securing financial aid, but the fates do not hinge on the test’s existence as a permanent and rigid fixture of American educational culture. The SAT has a history of its own, one that is rarely told to the high school students who toil and sweat in the hopes of achieving a good score. This history, skillfully recounted by Nicholas Lemann in his book The Big Test, is filled with provocative tales of politics, intelligence testing, American idealism, and socioeconomic stratification. Acknowledging this history allows us to humanize the SAT, to realize that it is a man-made product imbued with particular political and cultural meanings that have changed in the past and continue to change.

Demystifying the SAT requires recognition of these changes and an appreciation of how the test has evolved in response to shifting social contexts. What we know today as the College Board was founded in 1900 as the College Entrance Examination Board, a “tweedy, clubby association of a few dozen private schools and colleges” (Lemann, 1999, p. 28) tasked with devising a uniform admissions test that all colleges would accept. At this time, only about 4% of high school graduates went on to college. In 1901, the “College Boards” were administered for the first time to fewer than 1,000 students. The test was long and arduous—the essay section itself took five days to complete! The development of IQ testing within the US military and concomitant advances in psychology soon led the College Board to reexamine its testing framework. In 1925, the Board formed a commission to design a new test (Lemann, 1999). The first substantial changes were afoot.

On June 23, 1926 the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) was given to approximately 20,000 students. It functioned as a general intelligence test to supplement the existing College Board exam, and focused heavily on word familiarity and verbal skill. The first version of the SAT looked like this:

·      7 verbal sections, including definitions, artificial language, and analogies

·      2 math sections, arithmetical problems and number series

·      Total of 315 questions

·      Students had 97 minutes to complete the entire test

·      Let’s repeat that…97 minutes to answer 315 questions!

Substantive changes to the SAT were made almost immediately. In 1928, both of the math sections were eliminated. Imagine the SAT without math! The math sections reappeared in 1930, and students now had 100 minutes to answer a total of 80 questions. But wait. In 1936, math was removed for a second time! Students taking the SAT did not encounter math again until 1942. In 1946, the verbal section changed to consist of antonyms, analogies, sentence completion, and reading comprehension, a format that remained essentially the same for the next 60 years (Jacobsen, 2013).

Yet the SAT continued to evolve as the College Board tinkered with timing, the length of the test, and how the questions echoed broader changes in American education. For example, in 1958 the test consisted of 150 questions to be answered in 150 minutes, with two math sections and three verbal sections. By 1974, significant changes were made to the test with the addition of quantitative comparison questions in math and the inclusion of the Test of Standard Written English (TSWE), amongst other format changes. But in 1994, the TSWE was dropped, antonyms were removed from the verbal section, reading comprehension was renamed critical reading, free-response math questions were added, and students were allowed to use calculators. Even the name of the test has undergone numerous iterations—in 1993, it was renamed as the Scholastic Assessment Test, and in 2004 was changed to the SAT Reasoning Test. The SAT that most students and parents are familiar with now emerged in 2005, as the College Board decided to remove verbal analogies, add a writing skills section with an essay, and separate out the scores into the three sections of Critical Reading, Math, and Writing calculated on an 800-point scale (Jacobsen, 2013).

That brings us up to the changes planned for 2016, just another step in the grand evolution of the SAT. Will the SAT continue to change? Undoubtedly. Like any other product of the human imagination, it will shift and transform as its contexts change. Rather than be scared of these changes or hesitant to embrace them, we can welcome and prepare for them as reflections of the vibrancy of this particular time in American culture.


Jacobsen, E. (2013). A (mostly) brief history of the SAT and ACT tests. Accessed May 20, 2015 from

Lemann, N. (1999). The big test: The secret history of the American meritocracy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Weissglass, J. (1998). The SAT: Public-spirited or preserving privilege? Education Week, April 15.