Palms are sweating, hearts are pounding, backpacks are loaded with healthy snacks, scientific calculators, and freshly sharpened number two pencils—It’s a SAT Saturday and students are arriving at test centers across the country. There are a few rambunctious greetings, but mostly shy smiles and nervous chatter as students wait their turn to check in, clutching their freshly-printed test tickets and picture IDs.
According to the College Board, over 2 million students were part of this SAT testing scene last year. And the number seems to be building thanks to many states who are participating in the SAT School Day—a program offering students the chance to take the SAT at no cost during school hours.
The SAT has become the most widely used college admissions test. But when did the SAT start? Well, as with most things, the SAT did not merely appear—it evolved. The story of its evolution begins in the early 1900s.
Officially, the SAT started in 1926 when it was first given to a few thousand high school students. But the story behind this first test date reaches back to the year 1900. This was the year the College Board was formed. It was made up of 12 of the country’s most prominent universities. They joined together to create a standardized admissions process.
In 1901, the College Board administered the first college entrance examination. The test had four specific subject areas—all given in essay format.
That’s right, essays were not optional—essays were the test.
Experts in each subject read these answer booklets and gave them a rating of Excellent, Good, Doubtful, Poor, or Very Poor. Aren’t you thankful that you no longer have to fear the dreaded “Doubtful” rating?
The type of test used was what is known as an achievement test. This means that its design was to show what students had learned—or achieved—in their high school studies. It became an indicator of the quality of education students had received up to that point. Meaning that those attending better high schools, had a greater chance of being admitted to the elite colleges. This was a bit of a concern to the College Board whose mission was “to expand access to higher education.”
Around this time, a French psychologist named Alfred Binet invented a new type of test—an “Intelligence Quotient” or IQ test. His claim was that this type of test could accurately predict a person’s innate intelligence. Its results had nothing to do with the quality of education one received, but instead determined mental ability.
This began an IQ testing movement that made its way to the United States. Harvard psychology professor, Robert Yerks, was one of its champions. When World War I began, Yerkes convinced the army to allow him to test about 2 million recruits with his version of the IQ test. The goal was to use this “Alpha and Beta” test to select the most intelligent people for officer candidates.
Enter a new character named Carl Brigham. He was Yerkes’ assistant on this Alpha and Beta Army IQ test and was also a Princeton Psychologist. Brigham was fascinated with the testing process and its results, so he took this IQ test back with him to Princeton and did some tinkering, making it even more difficult. Brigham began to use his version of this Army test as an entrance exam for Princeton freshman.
The College Board, wanting to get away from their achievement test for its prospective students put Brigham in charge of a committee to develop a new type of entrance exam. Using his own version of the Alpha test, he created what he named, the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT. This was when the SAT got its official start–on June 23, 1926–and was given to 8,040 students.
This first SAT was mostly multiple-choice and included nine sub-tests. Unlike today, where students will study for months at a time, these hopeful applicants were given samples of the test one week before. Then it was go time.
After several test administrations, Brigham was convinced that his SAT was an accurate predictor of a student’s academic success in college.
This SAT start was not nation-wide. The expansion of the SAT can be attributed to another Harvard man. The year was 1933 and James Bryant Conant had just been appointed Harvard president. Conant saw that most Harvard students were from financially elite families—those who could afford to send their sons to the expensive Eastern boarding schools.
Conant saw this as a problem. He wanted to make Harvard available to smart kids from every part of society, not just the “best educated.” He set up a scholarship program for academically-gifted boys. Then he tasked his assistants, Henry Chauncy and Wilbur Bender, with the job of finding a test that would best identify students with potential.
As chance would have it, Chauncy and Bender met Brigham who had determined that his SAT was doing this very task—measuring intelligence and academic potential, not just how well a student had been educated. They brought the SAT back to the Harvard president and Conant began using this for test scholarship applicants in 1934.
The SAT soon got its start as the entrance exam for all Harvard applicants. The test was so successful that by the end of the 1930s, all Ivy League schools were using the SAT.
James Conant and his assistant, Henry Chauncy, deserve credit for the SAT’s status as one of the most widely used college entrance exams. Having become firm believers in the SAT’s ability to predict academic success, they wanted other universities to use it as well.
Conant pushed for the creation of the Educational Testing Service—or ETS—a non-profit testing organization that would continue to develop and administer the SAT for the College Board. The ETS became official on January 1, 1948. Conant was the first Chairman of the Board, and Chauncy became its first president.
But in order for the SAT to expand, they knew it needed to go beyond the East Coast Ivy League schools. The educators set their sites on the rapidly growing University of California system. So, that same year, ETS established an office in Berkeley, California.
Chauncey worked very hard to get colleges to require the SAT. By 1957, the number of students who took the SAT each year surpassed half a million. But ETS still didn’t have the coveted University of California system. Berkeley used the SAT experimentally, to test out-of-state students. But there was a lot of resistance with faculty and the state legislature.
It took nearly 20 years of effort by Chauncy and the ETS. Finally, in 1960 the University of California system began requiring the SAT. Even with the creation of the ACT the year before, this victory put the SAT on its way to being the admission test of choice for most American colleges and universities.
The SAT continues to this day to evolve from its start in 1926. ETS and the College Board have overhauled and adapted the test to make educational changes more than once. Its most recent challenge is the growing number of colleges and universities that no longer require the SAT.
But even with some resistance, the SAT is still seen as one of the “must-do’s” for college-bound students, even as the number of students and colleges continues to grow.
The SAT is not what it was when it started. Years from now, it may be completely different. As education changes, so do its forms of testing.
For now, if you are college bound, hang in there. Find out what your target college requires for admission. And if that is the SAT, be thankful you have more than a week to prepare. Use one of the many resources available to you, from apps to prep courses, and get studying.