What is it about the SAT that drives people nuts?  Ned Johnson explains. Johnson is president and self-described tutor geek at Prep Matters, a tutoring and test prep company with offices in Bethesda, Md., McLean, Va., and Washington D.C.

By Ned Johnson

Did you ever feel a bit of stress when you took the SAT or ACT?  Many of us do, and the reason may seem obvious:  because there’s something at stake. True enough, but there’s more to it than that. Dr. Sonia Lupien of the Fernand-Seguin Research Center in Quebec, who has conducted extensive research on stress and the human body, developed a model known by the acronym “N.U.T.S.” to illustrate what is most stressful to the human nervous system. N.U.T.S. stands for:

  • Novelty
  • Unpredictability
  • Threat to Self or Ego
  • Sense of Control (or really, a lack thereof)

Imagine the above were possible responses to an SAT multiple choice problem asking: What is it about the SAT that drives us crazy? The answer would undoubtedly be “all of the above.” Don’t believe me? Then join me for an evidenced-based jaunt down memory lane.

The test we know today as simply the “SAT” has a long history of change and revision; it’s an evolution that is often spoken of critically. But why such a strong negative reaction to revisions of the SAT that should, according to the test’s creators, make it a better and fairer test? Novelty, for one. While, yes, change can be a good thing, for students, who are already facing a host of anxieties about testing and performance, navigating the uncertainties of an ever-shifting testing landscape can be disorienting and unnerving.

Now compound that anxiety with our second N.U.T.S. factor: unpredictability; because for the general public, there is no pattern, no discernible way to determine when the SAT will decide to reinvent itself once again.

Case in point: Last month the SAT folks announced yet another revision that will jettison the essay requirement added in the 2005 update and continue the trend that began  with the 1994 SAT,  which  eliminated  test questions focusing on esoteric vocabulary words such as, well, “esoteric.” However great those changes may seem, they do nothing to reduce the anxiety-inducing unknowns of the test, and the accompanying sense of unfamiliarity and confusion isn’t exactly conducive to low-stress confidence on test-day.

The evolving nomenclature of the SAT alone is enough to make your head spin: The Scholastic Aptitude Test (1926) gave way to the Scholastic Assessment Test (1990) which was renamed SAT I: Reasoning Test (2005) before it was finally rebranded as the SAT Reasoning Test (2005). A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

But, hey, call it The Test Formally Known as The S.A.T. for all I care, because the one thing that a million revisions of the SAT will never change is the fact that the SAT is a standardized test, and standardized tests are just that: standardized. The test is not an IQ test; it has and always will remain a test of acquired knowledge and skills. If only the SAT (like its ACT counterpart) had announced these truths from the very beginning—would our egos have been so threatened? Would we have felt that how “smart” we were, how “worthy” we were of college acceptance was so completely out of our own control?

We may never know, because the SAT was not originally billed as a test of acquired knowledge, but instead was sold on the promise that it was an aptitude test. We were told that one couldn’t study for it and this made it fair. “Wait! What?!?  This test is what stands between me and my college dreams and there is nothing I can do to prepare?”

Until “truth in testing” legislation was pushed by New York State Sen. Kenneth LaValle in 1979, the College Board did not release any copies of the tests, and students couldn’t even look at what they got wrong, nor could they access any practice tests.  (No test prep, you ask? Yes, this was a long time ago!) In those days, test-takers would effectively walk in cold to a test, deconstruct the unfamiliar content and structure, and receive feedback that was understood to be reflective of an innate level of intelligence. “NUTS,” indeed!

Without any sense of control over the test, students found the whole enterprise very scary. And although the SAT has indeed changed its tune and no longer claims to be an aptitude test, I argue that new waves of students continue to approach it with the same fear and trepidation as did their predecessors. The early SAT simply posed too strong a threat to be easily forgotten.

Never masquerading as an aptitude test, the ACT, by contrast, has always maintained that it was a tool to assess students’ college readiness. Students were tested on knowledge learned in school and the skills necessary for college success. In addition, since its inception over 50 years ago, the ACT has not undergone any major revisions, creating a sense of familiarity and a more predictable pattern for test-takers. How many people have you met who are too embarrassed to tell you their SAT scores, or volunteer that they were never good test-takers or that these tests  don’t measure anything anyway?  Now, how does that compare with how often people will comment on their ACT scores?  I’d bet it’s at least 10 to 1.

Furthermore, the College Board has seen its market share fall behind that of its rival, an indignity. Starting in 1926, the SAT was the only game in town, and it remained so until College Board member E.F. Lindquist broke ranks, returned to Iowa, and created the ACT in 1959. Over time, a consistent image persisted.  College Board ruled the coasts (and the psyche) of the U.S.  ACT took care of the heartland and was viewed by many as “the other test.”  The first serious threat to the SAT occurred in the early aughts (just love that word) when College Board succumbed to complaints (well, threats, really) by the University of California President Richard Atkinson that the UC system was seriously considering dropping the SAT as an admissions requirement.  The SAT 2005, of course, reflects the changes made in response. But, the SAT 2005, if kid-tested, was not kid-approved, and the intervening years saw kids abandoning the SAT for the ACT in droves. In 2012, the younger brother sprinted ahead and hasn’t looked back. Okay, maybe a little. But just to giggle (see http://wapo.st/1gffglg). Perhaps this shifting hegemony explains why the newest SAT’s features seem—modeled on? borrowed from? purloined from?—the ACT.

Despite its original branding, the SAT is not an IQ test: students’ scores have been and will be determined by their acquired knowledge and test-taking skills. And to be fair, David Coleman and College Board are working hard to make the SAT align better with school curriculum and “the real world.”  To the degree that they are successful, that should help make kids (and their parents) less “NUTS” about the SAT.

And if preparation for a more aligned SAT 2016 does turn out to strengthen skills needed in the classroom, we’re all for it! If they fail, the ACT is happy to be Plan B.