What does the SAT measure? Aptitude? Achievement? Anything?

(bigstock)
(bigstock)

Back in the day, the day being June 23, 1926, the very first Scholastic Aptitude Test was given to some 8,000 young people, most of them male, who labored for three hours and 45 minutes on problems in nine areas: definitions, math problems, classification, artificial language, antonyms, number series, analogies, logical inference, and paragraph reading. (The post above this will have the test for you to try.) A week before they took the test, they were each given a packet filled with practice questions to familiarize themselves with the format and content of the exam. Even then, 88 years ago, folks knew the benefits of test prep!

When the first SAT was created, it was named the Scholastic Aptitude Test, signaling that its creators and the education world believed it to be a test of aptitude, or, a student’s ability to perform well in college. Aptitude tests supposedly measure talents that indicate possible achievement in the future, while achievement tests supposedly reveal how much someone has learned in the past.

All these years later, we know the test never really did measure anybody’s aptitude to do well in college. The College Board, which owns the SAT, tried over the years to defend the test’s ability to predict college success, but eventually gave up on it by dropping the word “aptitude” from the name and just calling it the SAT. Numerous studies have shown that high school grades are a better predictor of high school success than any college admissions exam. As Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), said:

No test can truly measure “aptitude” for academic success because school performance is not based on a single factor. Math and verbal skills — the qualities measured by tests such as the SAT, GMAT and LSAT — are just one component. Non-cognitive traits, such as creativity, motivation and “grit,” also play significant roles. High school grades are a more accurate predictor of college outcomes than any test because grades better capture the many characteristics that improve the chances of graduation. 

Moreover the nature of these standardized exams — fast-paced, multiple-choice “games” that put a premium on strategic guessing — means that they advantage students with strong test-taking skills, not necessarily those with other talents that may be more valuable in the classroom or in life. Finally, the concept of “aptitude” assumes that it is innate and unchangeable. In fact, humans can develop the knowledge, skills and experiences that improve performance, if given the opportunity. Test designers have quietly acknowledged this reality by removing labels such as “aptitude,” “ability,” and “intelligence” from their products’ titles. The public would be better served by avoiding use of these misleading terms.

Perhaps its identity crisis has led to its loss of the title as the most popular college admissions test in the country. The SAT was overtaken by the ACT in 2012, which helps explain why comprehensive changes are now in the works for the SAT for early next year.

NOTE: In the post above is the complete first SAT from 1926 as provided by the College Board. See if you can pass it.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · April 22