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Flummoxed by the venerable SAT

Back in my day, the SAT was known for its puzzling questions and demand of unconventional vocabulary. I can remember my friends strolling the halls with homemade flashcards cramming words (that they might never use again) into their brains. ‘Capacious,’ ‘querulous’ and ‘sagacity’ come to mind.

That outdated version of the test also introduced a type of idiomatic phraseology into English that still exists among people of my age group, but apparently not our kids. I recently quipped to my 17-year-old son, “Rules are to high school as professionalism is to…? His blank (somewhat condescending) stare gave it all away—he thought I was crazy.

Of course, I was referring to the analogy portion of the exam, which offered comparisons, such as “paltry is to significance as ___ is to ___,” for which students were given sets of words to choose from (in this case, redundant:discussion, austere:landscape, opulent:wealth, oblique:familiarity, banal:originality). Widely criticized as being irrelevant and purposefully tricky, these types of question were removed from the SAT in 2005, long before my teen had a chance to take a crack at them.

While the human brain is presumably developing in the same way it did a century ago, we are constantly changing the way in which we assess intelligence. The first standardized college entrance examination was given in 1901. It was entirely essay format and foreign language played a significant role. Questions were asked on history, mathematics, chemistry and physics, as well as, English, French, German, Latin and Greek.

To grade exams, experts from each field read the responses and rated them Excellent, Good, Doubtful, Poor and Very Poor. One example question from this early test was, “Write the rules for the following construction and illustrate each by a Latin sentence: a) Two uses of the dative; b) The cases used to indicate the relations of place; c) The cases used with verbs of remembering; d) the horatory (or jussive) subjunctive; e) the supine in um.” Something tells me that most modern-day teens (and many adults) would be stumped.

Based on this exam and the newly-invented IQ test, the first official SAT was developed and released 25 years later, in 1926. It was primarily multiple-choice and tested Definitions, Arithmetic, Classification, Artificial Language, Antonyms, Number Series, Analogies, Logical Inference and Paragraph Reading. I found the Artificial Language section fascinating in that it resembled my graduate work in linguistics. Test takers were given vocabulary and rules for a made up language and then asked to translate English sentences into the fake language and vice-versa.

Although foreign language played a much smaller role as the test evolved, the focus on word connections, definitions and antonyms remained until recently. In the new version of the SAT, released in 2016, word definitions were completely dropped. The interest now lies in assessing student ability to understand the meaning of a word—such as, pellucid—through context, as in, some may argue that older versions of the SAT were not pellucid.

The SAT is not without controversy. Besides the long-held notion that the test unfairly privileges white males, other scandals have drawn criticism. In1951 the test was used for draft deferment from the Korean war (high scorers were allowed to stay); students weren’t permitted to see their own scores until 1958; in 1981 there was an incorrect answer on one of the math questions; in 2006 approximately 5,000 test takers were incorrectly scored (in the non-helpful direction) and didn’t find out until much later; and College Board can’t seem to settle on a name for the exam!

The original ‘Scholastic Aptitude Test’ was changed in 1994 to ‘Scholastic Assessment Test,’ because the organization considered the word ‘aptitude’ to be misleading by connoting “aptitude as something innate or immutable.” They later pluralized ‘test,’ but soon conceded that ‘Scholastic Assessment Tests’ was redundant because ‘assessment’ and ‘test’ have the same meaning. They finally settled on the fact that SAT stands for nothing. In the late 1990s College Board had this to say about the quandary to the New York Times, “The SAT has become a trademark; it doesn’t stand for anything.”

The irony of that statement is not lost on me. Although my son is a gifted test taker, I certainly wasn’t and I know a lot of smart teenagers who aren’t either. Perhaps we are putting far too much weight on the exam, especially given the fact that there is a longstanding disagreement over how much studying can actually help improve one’s final result.  

In 1946, Stanley Kaplan rolled out the first SAT prep course, which cost $128 per student—roughly $1500 in today’s dollars. Think that’s pricey? Apparently Kaplan doesn’t. Once books and course fees are paid for, modern-day kids are still paying somewhere in that ballpark for a chance at extra points. I, for one, am thankful for College Board’s new partnership with Khan Academy to provide free online test preparation. At least this way, everyone can try to boost that score without going into debt to do it.