Friday, May 1, 2009

Rites of Passage: The SAT

By Douglas Grudzina

Tomorrow, Saturday May 2, marks an august Rite of Passage for thousands (possibly tens of thousands) of American eleventh-graders. Tomorrow, Saturday May 2, is the penultimate (which most nearly means: a. next to last, b. best and greatest, c. most challenging, d. largest in number, or e. second-highest in rank) administration of the SAT for the 2008-2009 school year. This is typically the administration at which many of our nation’s juniors take their “first SAT.”

There should be music, or at least a drum roll.

In honor of so important an occasion, we thought it might be interesting to share some little-known (and certainly unimportant) information about the ubiquitous SAT, the key to the First Portal of the Halls of Academe.

(None of this information is likely to be on the test tomorrow.)

The name of the test—SAT—means nothing. It’s just letters. When it was first called the SAT, in 1926, the letters stood for “Scholastic Achievement Test.” In 1941, the name was changed to “Scholastic Aptitude Test” because the test-writers decided that the test measured students’ reasoning skills and chances for success more than what they’d learned in school. The name was changed again—in 1990—to “Scholastic Assessment Test” because too many people interpreted “aptitude” to mean “intelligence,” and the test-writers did not want to claim to be offering an IQ test.

(We should note that this was a particularly silly name because “assessment” means test, so this was like calling it the Scholastic Test Test or the Scholastic Assessment Assessment.)

In 1994, “they” dropped all pretense at a name, simply calling the test, the “SAT I.” In 2005, “they” changed it yet again, this time to the “SAT Reasoning Test” (much clearer than “aptitude.”)

“They” are the College Entrance Examination Board (College Board for short), which was formed in 1900 when a small group of colleges organized. The original intent of the test was positive, to provide access to a college education to more than the ultra-wealthy by setting a clear college-admission standard to which students and schools could work.

The SAT Subject Tests have also undergone a long evolution, beginning as “Achievement Tests” (when the SAT was billed as an “aptitude” test). In 1994, they became the “SAT IIs,” and in 2005, they became the “SAT Subject Tests.”

In June of 1901, fewer than 1,000 students took the first “College Boards.” In 1926, only around 8,000 students took the first SAT (Scholastic Achievement Test). Tomorrow, almost 300,000 students will take the SAT Reasoning Test.”

Clearly, the SAT has become a popular event, and a certain allure has arisen around it. Contrary to a common misconception, however, the SAT is not an inescapable requirement for admission to college. Most colleges accept either SAT or ACT scores (the ACT is a whole different test from a whole different company that, maybe, we’ll talk about another day). Since 2003, Sarah Lawrence College in New York does not even look at an applicant’s SAT scores. And, beginning in the fall of 2009, schools like Smith College in Massachusetts and Wake Forest University in North Carolina are following suit.

Now here’s the only piece of information that might actually help someone taking the test tomorrow: It is not true that you get an “automatic” 200 points on the SAT Reasoning Test just for “signing your name.” A blank answer sheet won’t be scored at all.

So, no matter what you’ve heard, Moses did not bring the SAT down from Mount Sinai along with the Ten Commandments, and the answer key is not inscribed in invisible ink on the back of the Declaration of Independence. The SAT, like just about everything else, is an evolving tool. Our grandparents faced a very different test—if they took it at all, and our grandchildren will very likely face a very different test—if they take it at all.

Though the loss of a Rite of Passage would not be something to be taken lightly.

P.S. If you’re really interested in the rise of the SAT, you should check out The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy by Nicholas Lemann (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1999).

P.P.S. While it’s too late for tomorrow’s test, if you’re determined to survive this Rite, as generations have done before you, you might want to look at some of our popular and effective SAT-preparation materials, from our Vocabulary Power Plus series to SAT Words from Literature, all prepared to help make students’ initiation into higher education successful and painless.

Just remember: this is a test; it is only a test

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