The SAT Reasoning Test
(formerly Scholastic Aptitude Test
and Scholastic Assessment Test
) is a standardized test
for college admissions
in the United States
. The SAT is owned, published, and developed by the College Board
, a non-profit organization
in the United States, and was once developed, published, and scored by the Educational Testing Service
(ETS). ETS now administers the exam.
The current SAT Reasoning Test is administered in about four hours and costs $45 ($71 International), excluding late fees. Since the SAT's introduction in 1901, its name and scoring has changed several times. In 2005, the test was renamed as "SAT Reasoning Test" with possible scores from 600 to 2400 combining test results from three 800-point sections (math, critical reading, and writing), along with other subsections scored separately.
The College Board states that the SAT measures critical thinking skills that are needed for academic success in college
. They state that the SAT assesses how well the test takers analyze and solve problems—skills they learned in school that they will need in college. The SAT is typically taken by high school juniors
Specifically, the College Board states that use of the SAT in combination with high school grade point average (GPA) provides a better indicator of success in college than high school grades alone, as measured by college freshman GPA
. Various studies conducted over the lifetime of the SAT show a statistically significant increase in correlation
of high school grades and freshman grades when the SAT is factored in.
There are substantial differences in funding, curricula, grading, and difficulty among U.S. secondary schools due to American federalism, local control, and the prevalence of private, distance, and home schooled students. ACT/SAT scores are intended to supplement the secondary school record and help admission officers put local data—such as course work, grades, and class rank—in a national perspective.
Historically, the SAT has been more popular among colleges in the coasts and the ACT more popular in the Midwest and South. There are some colleges that require the ACT to be taken for college course placement, and a few schools that do not accept the SAT at all.
SAT consists of three major sections: Critical Reading
, and Writing
. Each section receives a score on the scale of 200–800. All scores are multiples of 10. Total scores are calculated by adding up scores of the three sections. Each major section is divided into three parts. There are 10 sub-sections, including an additional 25-minute experimental or "equating" section that may be in any of the three major sections. The experimental section is used to normalize
questions for future administrations of the SAT and does not count toward the final score. The test contains 3 hours and 45 minutes of actual timed sections, although most administrations, including orientation, distribution of materials, and completion of the biographical sections, run about 4 hours (10–25 minutes per sub-section) long.
The Critical Reading, formerly verbal, section of the SAT is made up of three scored sections, two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section, with varying types of questions, including sentence completions and questions about short and long reading passages. Critical Reading sections normally begin with 5 to 8 sentence completion questions; the remainder of the questions are focused on the reading passages. Sentence completions generally test the student's vocabulary
and understanding of sentence structure and organization by requiring the student to select one or two words that best complete a given sentence. The bulk of the Critical Reading questions is made up of questions regarding reading passages, in which students read short excerpts on social sciences, humanities, physical sciences, or personal narratives and answer questions based on the passage. Certain sections contain passages asking the student to compare two related passages; generally, these consist of short reading passages as well as longer passages. Since this is a timed test, the number of questions about each passage is proportional to the length of the passage.
section of SAT is widely known as Quantitative Section. Mathematics section consists of three scored sections. There are two 25-minute sections and one 20-minute section, as follows:
- One of the 25-minute sections is entirely multiple choice, with 20 questions.
- The other 25-minute section contains 8 multiple choice questions and 10 grid-in questions.
- The shorter section is all multiple choice, with only 16 questions.
Notably, the SAT has done away with quantitative comparison questions on the math section, leaving only questions with straightforward symbolic or numerical answers. Since the quantitative comparison questions were well-known for their deceptive nature—often turning on the student's recognition of a single exception to a rule or pattern—this choice has been equated to a philosophical shift away from "trickery" and toward "straight math" on the SAT. Also, many test experts have attributed this change, like the addition of the new writing section, to an attempt to make the SAT more like the ACT. Indeed, there is a correlation between ACT scores and SAT scores.
The writing section of the SAT, based on but not directly comparable to the old SAT II subject test in writing, includes multiple choice questions and a brief essay. The essay score accounts for roughly 30% of the writing score; the multiple choice component accounts for roughly 70%. This section in March 2005 following complaints from colleges about the lack of uniform examples of a student's writing ability.
The multiple choice questions include error identification questions, sentence improvement questions, and paragraph improvement questions. Error identification and sentence improvement questions test the student's knowledge of grammar, presenting an awkward or grammatically incorrect sentence; in the error identification section, the student must locate the word producing the source of the error or indicate that the sentence has no error, while the sentence improvement section requires the student to select an acceptable fix to the awkward sentence. The paragraph improvement questions test the student's understanding of logical organization of ideas, presenting a poorly written student essay and asking a series of questions as to what changes might be made to best improve it.
The essay section, which is always administered as the first section of the test, is 25 minutes long. All essays must be in response to a given prompt. The prompts are broad and often philosophical and are designed to be accessible to students regardless of their educational and social backgrounds. For instance, test takers may be asked to expound on such ideas as their opinion on the value of work in human life or whether technological change also carries negative consequences to those who benefit from it. No particular essay structure is required, and the College Board accepts examples "taken from [the student's] reading, studies, experience, or observations." Two trained readers assign each essay a score between 1 and 6, where a score of 0 is reserved for essays that are blank, off-topic, non-English, not written with a Number 2 pencil, or considered illegible after several attempts at reading. The scores are summed to produce a final score from 2 to 12 (or 0). If the two readers' scores differ by more than one point, then a senior third reader decides. The average time each reader/grader spends on each essay is less than 3 minutes.
Despite the College Board's claims that the SAT Essay is a nonbiased assessment of a student's writing ability, many different claims of bias have surfaced, including claims that readers give higher points to those who write in cursive, writers who write about personal experiences are less likely to get higher scores, and that topics favor the higher social classes. The College Board strictly denies any forms of bias on all portions of the SAT Reasoning Exam.
In March 2004 Dr. Les Perelman analyzed 15 scored sample essays contained in the College Board's Score Write book and found that 90% of essays that contained more than 400 words got the highest score of 12 and that the essays with 100 words or fewer got the lowest grade of 1. In addition, essays with factual errors were not penalized for the errors.
Most of the questions on the SAT are multiple choice
; all multiple-choice questions have five answer choices, one of which is correct. The questions of each section of the same type are generally ordered by difficulty. However, an important exception exists: Questions that follow the long and short reading passages are organized chronologically, rather than by difficulty. Ten of the questions in one of the math sub-sections are not multiple choice. They instead require the test taker to bubble in a number in a four-column grid.
The questions are weighted equally. For each correct answer, one raw point is added. For each incorrect answer one-fourth of a point is deducted. No points are deducted for incorrect math grid-in questions. This ensures that a student's mathematically expected gain from guessing is zero. The final score is derived from the raw score; the precise conversion chart varies between test administrations.
The SAT therefore recommends only making educated guesses, that is, when the test taker can eliminate at least one answer he or she thinks is wrong. Without eliminating any answers one's probability of answering correctly is 20%. Eliminating one wrong answer increases this probability to 25%; two, a 33.3% probability; three, a 50% probability of choosing the correct answer and thus earning the full point for the question.
Taking the test
The SAT is offered seven times a year
in the United States
, in October, November, December, January, March (or April, alternating), May, and June. The test is typically offered on the first Saturday of the month for the November, December, May, and June administrations. In other countries, the SAT is offered on the same dates as in the United States
except for the first spring test date (i.e., March or April), which is not offered. In 2006, the test was taken 1,465,744 times.
Candidates may either take the SAT Reasoning Test or up to three SAT Subject Tests
on any given test date, except the first spring test date, when only the SAT Reasoning Test is offered. Candidates wishing to take the test may register online at the College Board's website, by mail, or by telephone, at least three weeks before the test date.
The SAT Subject Tests are all given in one large book on test day. Therefore, it is actually immaterial which tests, and how many, the student signs up for; with the possible exception of the language tests with listening, the student may change his or her mind and take any
tests, regardless of his or her initial sign-ups. Students who choose to take more subject tests than they signed up for will later be billed by College Board for the additional tests and their scores will be withheld until the bill is paid. Students who choose to take fewer subject tests than they signed up for are not eligible for a refund.
The SAT Reasoning Test costs $45 ($71 International). For the Subject tests, students pay a $20 Basic Registration Fee and $9 per test (except for language tests with listening, which cost $20 each). The College Board makes fee waivers available for low income students. Additional fees apply for late registration, standby testing, registration changes, scores by telephone, and extra score reports (beyond the four provided for free).
Candidates whose religious beliefs prevent them from taking the test on a Saturday may request to take the test on the following Sunday, except for the October test date in which the Sunday test date is eight days after the main test offering. Such requests must be made at the time of registration and are subject to denial.
Students with verifiable disabilities, including physical and learning disabilities, are eligible to take the SAT with accommodations. The standard time increase for students requiring additional time due to learning disabilities is 50%.
Raw scores, scaled scores, and percentiles
Students receive their online score report approximately three weeks after administration of the test (six weeks for mailed, paper scores), with each section graded on a scale of 200–800 and two sub scores for the writing section: the essay score and the multiple choice sub score. In addition to their score, students receive their percentile
(the percentage of other test takers with lower scores). The raw score, or the number of points gained from correct answers and lost from incorrect answers (ranges from just under 50 to just under 60, depending upon the test), is also included. Students may also receive, for an additional fee, the Question and Answer Service, which provides the student's answer, the correct answer to each question, and online resources explaining each question.
The corresponding percentile of each scaled score varies from test to test—for example, in 2003, a scaled score of 800 in both sections of the SAT Reasoning Test corresponded to a percentile of 99.9, while a scaled score of 800 in the SAT Physics Test corresponded to the 94th percentile. The differences in what scores mean with regard to percentiles are because of the content of the exam and the caliber of students choosing to take each exam. Subject Tests are subject to intensive study (often in the form of an AP
, which is relatively more difficult), and only those who know they will perform well tend to take these tests, creating a skewed distribution of scores.
The percentiles that various SAT scores for college-bound seniors correspond to are summarized in the following chart:
| Score, 1600 Scale|
| Score, 2400 Scale|
|| 2400 |
|| ≥2300 |
|| ≥2200 |
|| ≥2140 |
|| ≥2100 |
|| ≥1900 |
|| ≥1800 |
|| ≥1770 |
|| ≥1700 |
|| ≥1600 |
|| ≥1500 |
|| ≥1400 |
|| ≥1200 |
|| ≥1010 |
|| ≥790 |
|* The percentile of the perfect score was 99.98 on the 2400 scale and 99.93 on the 1600 scale.
The older SAT (before 1995) had a very high ceiling. In any given year, only seven of the million test-takers scored above 1580. A score above 1580 was equivalent to the 99.9995 percentile.
SAT-ACT score comparisons
Although there is no official conversion chart between the SAT and its biggest rival, the ACT, the College Board released an unofficial chart based on results from 103,525 test takers who took both tests between October 1994 and December 1996 here; however, both tests have changed since then. Several colleges have also issued their own charts. The following is based on the University of California's conversion chart.
! SAT (Prior to Writing Test Addition)
| SAT (With Writing Test Addition)
|| ACT Composite Score |
|| 36 |
|| 35 |
|| 34 |
|| 33 |
|| 32 |
|| 31 |
|| 30 |
|| 29 |
|| 28 |
|| 27 |
|| 26 |
|| 25 |
|| 24 |
|| 23 |
|| 22 |
|| 21 |
|| 20 |
|| 19 |
|| 18 |
|| 17 |
|| 16 |
|| 15 |
|| 14 |
|| 13 |
|| 12 |
|| 11 |
Mean SAT Scores by year
| Math |
|| 509 |
|| 506 |
|| 505 |
|| 498 |
|| 497 |
|| 496 |
|| 494 |
|| 493 |
|| 492 |
|| 492 |
|| 493 |
|| 494 |
|| 497 |
|| 500 |
|| 500 |
|| 501 |
|| 501 |
|| 502 |
|| 501 |
|| 500 |
|| 501 |
|| 503 |
|| 504 |
|| 506 |
|| 508 |
|| 511 |
|| 512 |
|| 511 |
|| 514 |
|| 514 |
|| 516 |
|| 519 |
|| 518 |
|| 520 |
|| 518 |
|| 515 |
Originally used mainly by colleges and universities in the north-eastern United States, and developed by Carl Brigham
, one of the psychologists who worked on the Army Alpha and Beta tests, the SAT was originally developed as a way to eliminate test bias between people from different socio-economic backgrounds.
The College Board began on June 17
, when 973 students took its first test, across 67 locations in the United States, and two in Europe. Although those taking the test came from a variety of backgrounds, approximately one third were from New York
, New Jersey
, or Pennsylvania
. The majority of those taking the test were from private schools, academies, or endowed schools. About 60% of those taking the test applied to Columbia University
. The test contained sections on English, French
, history, mathematics, chemistry
, and physics
. The test was not multiple choice, but instead was evaluated based on essay responses as "excellent," "good," "doubtful," "poor," or "very poor."
The first administration of the SAT occurred on June 23
, when it was known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test. This test, prepared by a committee headed by Princeton psychologist Carl Campbell Brigham, had sections of definitions
, classification, artificial language, antonyms
, number series, analogies
, logical inference
, and paragraph reading. It was administered to over 8,000 students at over 300 test centers. Men composed 60% of the test-takers. Slightly over a quarter of males and females applied to Yale University
and Smith College
respectively. The test was paced considerably quickly, test-takers being given only a little over 90 minutes to answer 315 questions.
1928 and 1929 tests
In 1928 the number of verbal sections was reduced to 7, and the time limit was increased to slightly under two hours. In 1929 the number of sections was again reduced, this time to 6. These changes in part loosened time constraints on test-takers. Math was eliminated entirely for these tests, instead focusing only on verbal ability.
1930 test and 1936 changes
In 1930 the SAT was first split into the verbal and math sections, a structure that would continue through 2004. The verbal section of the 1930 test covered a more narrow range on content than its predecessors, examining only antonyms, double definitions (somewhat similar to sentence completions), and paragraph reading. In 1936, analogies were re-added. Between 1936 and 1946, students had between 80 and 115 minutes to answer 250 verbal questions (over a third of which were on antonyms). The mathematics test introduced in 1930 contained 100 free response questions to be answered in 80 minutes, and focused primarily on speed. From 1936 to 1941, like the 1928 and 1929 tests, the mathematics section was eliminated entirely. When the mathematics portion of the test was re-added in 1942, it consisted of multiple choice questions.
1946 test and associated changes
Paragraph reading was eliminated from the verbal portion of the SAT in 1946, and replaced with reading comprehension, and "double definition" questions were replaced with sentence completions. Between 1946 and 1957 students were given 90 to 100 minutes to complete 107 to 170 verbal questions. Starting in 1958 time limits became more stable, and for 17 years, until 1975, students had 75 minutes to answer 90 questions. In 1959 questions on data sufficiency were introduced to the mathematics section, and then replaced with quantitative comparisons in 1974. In 1974 both verbal and math sections were reduced from 75 minutes to 60 minutes each, with changes in test composition compensating for the decreased time.
1980 test and associated changes
The inclusion of the "Strivers" Score study was implemented. This study was introduced by The Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT, and has been conducting research on how to make it easier for minorities and individuals who suffer from social and economic barriers.
The original "Strivers" project, which was in the research phase from 1980 - 1994, awarded special "Striver" status to test-takers who scored 200 points higher than expected for their race, gender and income level. The belief was that this would give minorities a better chance at being accepted in to a college of higher standard, i.e. an Ivy League school. In 1992, the Strivers Project was leaked to the public; as a result the Strivers Project was terminated in 1993. After Federal Courts heard arguments from the ACLU, NAACP and the Educational Testing Service, the courts ordered the study to alter its data collection process, stating that only the age, race and zip code could be used to determine the test-takers eligibility for "Strivers" points.
These changes were introduced to the SAT effective in 1994.
In 1994 the verbal section received a dramatic change in focus. Among these changes were the removal of antonym
questions, and an increased focus on passage reading. The mathematics section also saw a dramatic change in 1994, thanks in part to pressure from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
. For the first time since 1935, the SAT asked some non-multiple choice questions, instead requiring students to supply the answers. 1994 also saw the introduction of calculators into the mathematics section for the first time in the test's history. The mathematics section introduced concepts of probability, slope, elementary statistics, counting problems, median and mode.
The average score on the 1994 modification of the SAT I was usually around 1000 (500 on the verbal, 500 on the math). The most selective schools in the United States (for example, those in the Ivy League) typically had SAT averages exceeding 1400 on the old test.
2002 changes - score choice
In October 2002, the College Board decided to drop the score choice option for exams. They figured that it benefited wealthier students taking the exam who could afford to take it multiple times. Score choice means that scores are not released to colleges until the student approves the score (after seeing it).
In 2005, the test was changed again, largely in response to criticism by the University of California system
. Because of issues concerning ambiguous questions, especially analogies
, certain types of questions were eliminated (the analogies from the verbal and quantitative comparisons from the Math section). The test was made marginally harder, as a corrective to the rising number of perfect scores. A new writing section, with an essay, based on the former SAT II Writing Subject Test, was added, in part to increase the chances of closing the opening gap between the highest and midrange scores. Other factors included the desire to test the writing ability of each student in a personal manner; hence the essay. The New SAT (known as the SAT Reasoning Test) was first offered on March 12
, after the last administration of the "old" SAT in January of 2005. The Mathematics section was expanded to cover three years of high school mathematics. The Verbal section's name was changed to the Critical reading section.
In 2008, the "score choice" which was dropped in 2002 will be put into effect starting with the March 2009 SAT examination for the Class of 2010. With this new policy, students will be able to select which scores they will send to colleges by test date.
Name changes and recentered scores
Although originally standing for "Scholastic Aptitude Test", in 1990, because of uncertainty about the SAT's ability to function as an intelligence test
, the name was changed to Scholastic Assessment Test. In 1993 the name was changed to SAT I: Reasoning Test (with the letters not standing for anything
) to distinguish it from the SAT II: Subject Tests
. In 2004, the roman numerals on both tests were dropped, and the SAT I renamed the SAT Reasoning Test. The scoring categories are now the following: Reading, Math, Writing, and Essay. The essay has its own score now.
The test scoring was initially scaled to make 500 the mean score on each section with a standard deviation of 100. As the test grew more popular and more students from less rigorous schools began taking the test, the average dropped to about 428 Verbal and 478 Math. The SAT was "recentered" in 1995, and the average "new" score became again close to 500. Scores awarded after 1994 and before October 2001 are officially reported with an "R" (e.g. 1260R) to reflect this change. Old scores may be recentered to compare to 1995 to present scores by using official College Board tables
, which in the middle ranges add about 70 points to Verbal and 20 or 30 points to Math. In other words, current students have a 100 (70 plus 30) point advantage over their parents.
Scoring problems of October 2005 tests
In March 2006, it was announced that a small percentage of the SATs taken in October 2005 had been scored incorrectly due to the test papers being moist and not scanning properly, and that some students had received substantially erroneous scores. The College Board announced they would change the scores for the students who were given a lower score than they earned, but at this point many of those students had already applied to colleges using their original scores. The College Board decided not to change the scores for the students who were given a higher score than they earned. A lawsuit was filed in 2005 by about 4,400 students who received an incorrect low score on the SAT. The class-action suit was settled in August 2007 when The College Board and another company that administers the college-admissions test announced they would pay $2.85 million to over 4,000 students. Under the agreement each student can either elect to receive $275 or submit a claim for more money if he or she feels the damage was even greater.
A famous example of alleged bias in the SAT I was the oarsman-regatta analogy question. The object of the question was to find the pair of terms that have the relationship most similar to the relationship between "runner" and "marathon." The correct answer was "oarsman" and "regatta." Choice of the correct answer presupposed students' familiarity with a sport popular with the wealthy, and so upon their knowledge of its structure and terminology. Fifty-three percent (53%) of white students correctly answered the question, but only 22% of black students did. Analogy questions have since been replaced by short reading passages.
A growing number of liberal arts colleges
have responded to this criticism by joining the SAT optional movement
. These colleges do not require the SAT for admission.
In a 2001 speech to the American Council on Education, Richard C. Atkinson, then president of the University of California, urged dropping the SAT Reasoning Test as a college admissions requirement:
- "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.
In response to threats by the University of California to drop the SAT as an admission requirement, the College Entrance Examination Board announced the restructuring of the SAT, to take effect in March 2005, as detailed above.
In 2005, MIT
Writing Director Les Perelman
plotted essay length versus essay score on the new SAT from released essays and found a high correlation between them. After studying 23 graded essays he found that the longer the essay was, the higher the score. He also discovered that several of these essays were full of factual errors. However, the official SAT guide for scorers state that the essays should be scored according to their quality of writing and not factual accuracy. The National Council of Teachers of English also criticize the 25-minute writing section of the test, arguing that the basic principles of writing encourage the revision of written material several times. They say that the amount of time allowed for the test pushes schools to develop a formulaic system of writing.
Many companies and organizations offer test preparation in the form of books, classes, online courses, and tutoring. Large organizations include the Princeton Review, Kaplan, Barron's, Elite Educational Institute, Revolution Prep, Ivy Insiders, Testmasters, SAT Solutions, and College Board (the test makers). Some have criticized the SAT test because preparation often can lead to much higher scores, but some have embraced the opportunity to improve their scores.
- Frey, M.C. and Detterman, D.K. (2003) Scholastic Assessment or g? The Relationship Between the Scholastic Assessment Test and General Cognitive Ability. Psychological Science, 15(6):373–378. PDF
- Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. W. W. Norton & Company; Rev/Expd edition 1996. ISBN 0-393-31425-1.
- Gruber, Gary. Gruber's Complete SAT Guide 2008.Pub. Sourcebooks
- Hoffman, Banesh. The Tyranny of Testing. Orig. pub. Collier, 1962. ISBN 0-486-43091-X (and others).
- Hubin, David R. "The Scholastic Aptitude Test: Its Development and Introduction, 1900-1948" A Ph.D. Disseration in American History at the University of Oregon, 1988. Available for download at http://www.uoregon.edu/~hubin/
- Hubin, David R. "Bibliography" to The Scholastic Aptitude Test: Its Development and Introduction, 1900-1948. A 63 Page Bibliography to 1988 Ph.D. Disseration with Archival References, Primary Sources, Oral History References. http://www.uoregon.edu/~hubin/BIBLIO.pdf
- Owen, David. None of the Above: The Truth Behind the SATs. Revised edition. Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. ISBN 0-8476-9507-7.
- Sacks, Peter. Standardized Minds: The High Price of America's Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It. Perseus, 2001. ISBN 0-7382-0433-1.
- Zwick, Rebecca. Fair Game? The Use of Standardized Admissions Tests in Higher Education. Falmer, 2002. ISBN 0-415-92560-6.