The SATs (pronounced "S-A-T" not "sat") are standardized tests, formerly called the Scholastic Aptitude Tests and Scholastic Assessment Tests, frequently used by colleges and universities in the United States to aid in the selection of incoming freshmen. The SAT is the product of the Educational Testing Service (ETS), a subsidiary of the private, non-profit firm, the College Board. These organizations have a mail address in Princeton, New Jersey, but are not associated with Princeton University.
Unlike many other countries' education systems, there often are (possibly substantial) differences between U.S. secondary schools, both as regards high schools in separate states and also between high schools in the same state. This is a consequence of U.S. federalism, which makes it difficult for the federal government to directly micromanage local school systems, and the traditional tax system in the U.S., in which school districts are funded directly from the property taxes of homeowners in their jurisdiction. Since some neighborhoods are wealthier and have more expensive real estate, they also have higher tax revenue and better public schools.
These differences make it difficult for universities to compare prospective students—which universities traditionally seek to do, in an effort to determine and admit the most promising candidates. In the absence of centralized secondary education school exit exams (such as the French Baccalaureate, Irish Leaving Certificate, or British A-levels), there is a need in the U.S. for standardized tests. U.S. Universities thus use tests such as the SAT and the ACT as a standard way of assessing students that come from many different schools that use different GPA or grading systems.
The tests are generally taken by high school students or graduates wishing to progress to higher education. Test results of applicants are provided to colleges and universities. Entrance to these universities is also almost always based on other factors, such as GPA, teacher recommendations, and participation in extracurricular activities, but some colleges have a threshold score that automatically qualifies a candidate for admission. Scores on the SAT have also been used as a criterion for the awarding of many academic scholarships (see also PSAT).
The education systems of most countries other than the U.S. are more centralized, so there is no need for tests such as the SAT or ACT in these countries and non-U.S. secondary school leavers mostly do not take such tests.
However, non-U.S. school leavers seeking admission with U.S. colleges/universities are often expected to provide SAT or ACT scores. To facilitate this, the SAT tests are offered worldwide. Non-U.S. secondary school students are mostly not informed of the possibility to take these tests (as there is no need for them to do so unless they seek to pursue a degree in the U.S.) and most teachers outside of the U.S. (especially those in non-English speaking countries) would not be aware that their students can take these tests. Thus, taking the SAT is almost entirely a matter of their own discretion for non-U.S. students: They themselves need to find out about the test (typically from U.S. embassies or consulates and/or by obtaining a free "SAT Program Registration Bulletin, International Version") and they then need to contact whatever organization is responsible for administering the test in their area. This can require international travel and fees usually apply.
Administering the SAT series of tests worldwide arguably makes good sense as it facilitates applications from non-U.S. students to U.S. universities and also reduces problems of comparing other countries' education systems with U.S. standards. Some have argued that this enables U.S. universities to "pick the cream of the crop, worldwide".
Finally, as the SAT has been well established for many years and decades, some non-U.S. universities also sometimes may consider SAT scores in their admissions process (although they are rarely required; the exceptions including colleges modelled along American ones abroad).
SAT Reasoning Test
The SAT Reasoning Test (formerly the SAT I: Reasoning Test and commonly referred to as the SAT I) covers two subjects: mathematical and verbal reasoning. Scores on each subject range from 200 to 800, with scores always being a multiple of 10. The test is presented in seven sections: three math, three verbal, and one equating section which may be either math or verbal. The equating section does not count in any way towards a student's score; it is used to compare the relative difficulty of various exams, so that scores received on different editions of the test are commensurable. It is also used as a testbed for new material. Each of the seven sections is ordered first by question type, then by difficulty, with the exception of the critical reading question type, which is organized chronologically. For each correct answer, one raw point is added; for each incorrect answer on a question with 5 answer choices, one-fourth of a point is deducted; for each incorrect answer on a question with 4 answer choices, one-third of a point is deducted. Ten of the questions in the quantitative section are not multiple-choice. They instead require the test taker to input the result of their calculations in a four-column grid. For these questions, no points are deducted for a wrong answer. The final score is derived from the raw score; the precise conversion chart varies from year to year due to minor variations in test difficulty.
Answer choices are often littered with distractors or Joe Bloggs (usually common mistakes or incomplete calculations). Many students rush through the first portion of easy questions and then get the difficult questions which follow wrong. The average score on the SAT I is, in theory, 1000 (500 on the verbal, 500 on the math), though the most recent national average is 508 for math, 518 for verbal. The most selective schools in the United States (for example, the Ivies) typically have SAT averages exceeding 1400. At 1510, Caltech currently has the highest average score for incoming freshmen.
In the early 1990s, the SAT consisted of six sections: two math sections (scored together on a 200-800 scale), two verbal sections (scored together on a 200-800 scale), the Test of Standard Written English (scored on a 20-60+ scale), and an equating section. In the late 1990s, the exam was modified, removing antonym questions, and adding math questions that were not multiple choice.
In March 2005, the SAT Reasoning Test will be modified and lengthened. Key changes include the removal of analogy questions and quantitative comparisons, the addition of a writing section based largely on the current SAT II Writing Subject Test, and the expansion of the mathematics sections to cover three years of high school mathematics. In all, the new SAT will contain nine sections, and a total length of 3 hours 45 minutes; with the additional section, a "perfect" score on the new SAT will be 2400.
SAT Subject Tests
The SAT Subject tests (formerly the SAT II: Subject Tests and commonly referred to as the SAT II) are one-hour multiple-choice tests given in individual subjects. The exception is the Writing test, which is divided into a 20-minute essay question and a 40-minute multiple choice section.
The 22 Subject Tests are: Writing, Literature, U.S. History, World History, Math Level IC, Math Level IIC, Biology E/M (Ecological or Molecular), Chemistry, Physics, French Reading, French Reading with Listening, German Reading, German Reading with Listening, Spanish Reading, Spanish Reading with Listening, Modern Hebrew Reading, Italian Reading, Latin Reading with Listening, Japanese Reading with Listening, Korean Reading with Listening, Chinese Reading with Listening, and the English Language Proficiency Test (ELPT).
Each individual test is scored on a scale of 200 to 800, except for the ELPT, which is scored on a scale of 100 to 999. The ELPT will cease to be offered after January 2005. Colleges often require the Writing test, a math test, and a test of the student's choice. Engineering schools typically require a science test and prefer Math Level IIC. The SAT Writing Test will also cease to be offered after January 2005 due to its incorporation into the New SAT Reasoning Test.
Taking the test
The SAT is typically offered seven times a year in the United States, on the first Saturday of October, November, December, January, March, May and June. In other countries, the SAT is offered on the same dates as in the United States except for the March test date, which is not offered.
Candidates may either take the SAT Reasoning Test or up to three SAT Subject Tests on any given test date, except the March test date, when only the SAT Reasoning Test is offered. Candidates may register to take the test online at the College Board's website http://www.collegeboard.com/ , by mail or by phone. Typically candidates must register at least three weeks before the test date.
For candidates whose religious beliefs prevent them from taking the test on a Saturday, they may request to take the test on the Sunday after the test is usually held. Such requests must be made at the time of registration.
Raw Scores, scaled scores and percentiles
Except for the SAT Reasoning Test and some Subject Tests with subsections, the College Board does not provide candidates with their raw scores, but only their scaled score (on a scale of 200 to 800) and their percentile (i.e. the percentage of other candidates scoring lower than them).
The corresponding percentile of each scaled score varies from test to test - for example, in 2003, a scaled score of 800 in both section of the SAT Reasoning Test corresponded to a percentile of over 99, while a scaled score of 800 in the SAT Physics Test corresponded to the 94th percentile. The difference in corresponding percentiles reflects the number of students who take test. Generally speaking, the more popular test, the higher the percentile corresponding to a scaled score of 800.
History and name changes
The initials SAT have been used since the test was first introduced in 1901 as the Scholastic Achievement Test and meant to measure the level achieved by students seeking college admission. The test was used mainly by colleges and universities in the northeastern United States. In 1941, after considerable development, the name was changed to the Scholastic Aptitude Test, still the most popular name. The test became much more widely used in the 1950s and 1960s and once was almost universal.
The success of SAT coaching schools, such as Kaplan and the Princeton Review, forced the College Board to change the name again. In 1990, the name was changed to Scholastic Assessment Test, since a test that can be coached clearly did not measure inherent "scholastic aptitude" but only what the test subject had learned in school. This was a major theoretical retreat by the Educational Testing Service, which had previously maintained that the test measured inherent aptitude and was free of bias.
In 1994, however, the redundancy of the term assessment test was recognized and the name was changed to the neutral, and non-descriptive, SAT. At the time, the College Board announced, "Please note that SAT is not an initialism. It does not stand for anything."
The average score was initially designed to be 500 points on each section. However, as the test grew more popular and students from less rigorous schools began taking the test, the average dropped, bottoming out at about 450 for each section. Various attempts at balancing out this decline led to complex statistical anomalies. For example, in certain years it was impossible to get a score of 780 or 790 on a section; one could only get a 770 or below or an 800. To combat this trend, in 1995 the SAT was "recalibrated" (officially, the term is "recentered"), and the average score became again closer to 500. All modern scores are officially reported with an "R" (e.g. 1260R) to reflect this change.
The SAT Reasoning Test has long been the subject of criticism. Critics claim that it is biased towards males and whites (if true, this is somewhat ironic, as one of the original touted advantages of the SAT was that it would give immigrant children an equal chance with traditional elites). Opponents to the SAT propose different solutions, including the offering of different SAT tests targeted at different demographic groups. Furthermore, many of the multiple-choice questions and word analogies have been found to be ambiguous, and some math scores have had to be changed because of errors in scoring them.
One out of four colleges have made the SAT Reasoning Test optional and have begun to pay more attention to other measures of student ability. The University of California system has started to weigh SAT IIs more heavily instead. Other colleges have encouraged the use of the alternate ACT instead. Overall SAT averages for admission are still the subject of self-promotion by colleges and universities, however.
Unlike the SAT Reasoning Test, the SAT Subject Tests have received less controversy, partly because they are more content oriented.
In 2001, Richard C. Atkinson, president of the University of California, urged dropping the SAT Reasoning Test as a college admissions requirement, in a speech to the American Council of Education . His speech included the following:
- "Anyone involved in education should be concerned about how overemphasis on the SAT is distorting educational priorities and practices, how the test is perceived by many as unfair, and how it can have a devastating impact on the self-esteem and aspirations of young students. There is widespread agreement that overemphasis on the SAT harms American education."
- "And in 1996, [the College Board] dropped the name altogether and said that the "SAT" was the "SAT" and that the initials no longer stood for anything. Rather than resolving the problem, this rhetorical sleight-of-hand served to underscore the mystery of what the SAT is supposed to measure."
In response to various criticisms, the College Entrance Examination Board announced the restructuring of the SAT, to take effect in March 2005, as detailed above.
- College Board: Tests http://www.collegeboard.com/testing/
- Vocabulary tests for the SAT http://businessmajors.about.com/cs/quizzes/a/Vocabulary_Test.htm
- Atkinson expands on his remarks http://www.ucop.edu/pres/speeches/achieve.htm
Claim: Students who take the SAT are awarded 200 points for spelling their names correctly http://www.snopes.com/college/exam/sat.asp (from Snopes.com)
Last updated: 02-07-2005 03:41:47