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The Complete Story: What Does SAT Stand For? Plus Fun Questions

Posted by Allen Cheng | Dec 18, 2014 4:47:00 PM

SAT General Info


feature_SATThe SAT was first introduced in 1926, and since then it has continued to be a major test for college admissions standardized testing.

But what does SAT actually stand for? The answer gets quite complicated. The name of the test has actually changed 2 times over the past 90 years. The reasons point to controversies and scandals about the test that continue to change how the test is perceived by colleges. Continue reading to find more about the history of the SAT and the reasoning behind the name.


The Very Beginning: 1899

The College Board (formerly, the College Entrance Examination Board) was organized at Columbia University on December 22, 1899. The board consisted of 12 universities and 3 private high schools, including well-known schools like Columbia, Princeton, and Cornell. The goal of this board was to agree on a set of standards that should be taught in high school, and to create a test that could figure out how well students were prepared in these subjects.

Before this point, there really was no reliable way to compare students to each other on a national level. Students from different schools would have different grades and different teachers, and it would be hard for a college to reliably compare students to each other. The College Board aimed to solve this problem.

Fun fact: these were the subjects that were important to the board at the time: Botany, Chemistry, English, French, German, Greek, History, Latin, Mathematics, Physics, Zoology. Looks like since a century ago, Botany and Zoology have been merged into Biology, and Greek and Latin are clearly no longer popular languages!

The very first test given by the College Board was in 1901, but this was a prototype essay test. They retooled the test for a while, and then came out with the very first SAT:


1926: The Scholastic Aptitude Test

The SAT began life as an acronym: the Scholastic Aptitude Test. To be precise about what this name means, let's define the words:

Scholastic: "of or concerning schools and education; academic"

Fair enough - this test relates to the student's education.

Aptitude: "a natural ability to do something; talent"

Whoa, wait a second. "Natural ability" and "talent" implies a quality that you're born with and don't have the ability to change. Aptitude implies that some people are born good at certain things, others aren't so lucky, and that's how they'll stay for the rest of life.

Yes, that's right - the SAT was originally designed to be more like an IQ test. The suggestion was that people with higher IQs were more likely to succeed in college and in life. Importantly, the College Board believed that you couldn't score higher on the test by preparing. The questions on the test were specifically designed NOT to test things that you had already learned in school. That's what lies behind the loaded term "aptitude."

This also explains part of why the SAT is such a weird test and tests questions that you've never seen before in school. Even now, over 100 years since the College Board was founded, high school students are still feeling the legacy of the test.


For Fun: What was tested on the 1926 SAT? 

It looks very different from the SAT we're used to. Verbal skills tested included Definitions, Antonyms, and Analogies, while math questions included Number Series and Logical Inference.

Just for fun, try a few sample questions from the 1926 SAT:



Despite its flaws, the introduction of the SAT was actually a huge game-changer for high school students. In the past, elite college would select from high schools that they knew well - often serving wealthy, white families. Now there was a way to compare students across the country to each other and identify promising students that didn't fit the traditional student mold. More and more schools starting requiring the SAT as part of their admissions.

But remember how this was meant to be an "aptitude" test? People started noticing problems with the idea that this test studied aptitude.

First, test prep companies began showing that they could improve test scores through dedicated prep. This still holds true for today's SAT prep programs. This means that the test doesn't test purely innate ability - you CAN learn to get better on this test.

Second, ideas around education began changing. Where once people thought academic ability had to do with innate ability, we now know it has a lot to do with environmental factors and individual character.

With all this controversy, the College Board decided to change the test name:


1993: Scholastic Assessment Test

Facing pressure behind the "aptitude" part of SAT, the College Board renames the test to the Scholastic Assessment Test. Specifically, what we know as the SAT was called the SAT I: Reasoning Test. The subject tests were called SAT II: Subject Tests.

This shift was response to the faulty idea that preparation for these tests would not improve score. By now, it was clear that test prep could improve SAT scores, and suggesting otherwise was misleading.

At this point, the College Board decided that the SAT should better assess student growth in "high school curricula" and test the skills used in college and career work.

But wait - doesn't "assessment" also mean "test?" So this would be like calling the SAT the Scholastic Test Test.

Partly for this reason and for others, the College Board decided to issue a new statement:


1997: SAT No Longer Means Anything

That's right. The SAT currently is not supposed to stand for anything anymore. Here's an official comment by the College Board:

"The SAT has become the trademark; it doesn't stand for anything," said Scott Jeffe, a spokesman for the College Board in New York. ''The SAT is the SAT, and that's all it is."

You might know that the fried chicken chain KFC used to stand for "Kentucky Fried Chicken." Now KFC, like the SAT, no longer stands for anything.

Why keep the SAT name at all, if it doesn't mean anything? By that point, millions of students were taking the SAT. Changing the name - say, to the ART, or "Academic Reasoning Test" - would be confusing for students, parents, and colleges. 

So what does SAT stand for? Now you know - the SAT no longer stands for anything. It escaped the original problems by calling it an "aptitude" test, and now avoids the redundancy in "assessment test." It's still trying to reinvent itself to become a better test.

Now the SAT is just the SAT.


What's Next?

What's a good SAT score for you? Read this guide to find out.

How do you get a perfect SAT score? I wrote a detailed guide here.

We also wrote a popular free guide to the top 5 tips to improve your SAT score by 160 points or more:

Get eBook: 5 Tips for 160+ Points

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Allen Cheng
About the Author

As co-founder and head of product design at PrepScholar, Allen has guided thousands of students to success in SAT/ACT prep and college admissions. He's committed to providing the highest quality resources to help you succeed. Allen graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude and earned two perfect scores on the SAT (1600 in 2004, and 2400 in 2014) and a perfect score on the ACT. You can also find Allen on his personal website, Shortform, or the Shortform blog.

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