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The Sat: Its Myths and Realities

Updated on January 24, 2022
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.


Many high school seniors know the ritual. Early one Saturday they head to a classroom either at their school or another nearby. While fighting the need to sleep, they start to focus on a booklet, answer sheet, pencils, and scrap paper (for math equations, they're told) placed before them on their assigned seating. After a half-hour of hearing the drone of the test administrators reading the SAT test protocols.

By the time they finish, students rush open the booklet, bubble in the test answer on the timed-test. They'll be there for four hours. Yet, that four hours may determine if they go on to their desired college.

The SAT test has became a “rite of passage” for many college-bound students. They stress over it; spend long hours preparing for it; and in some cases, they base their entire post-secondary academic and professional careers on it.

Not only that, high SAT scores are used by teachers, parents, and school administrators as a "badge of honor". Even realtors have found ways to use these scores -- as well as the status of the nearby schools -- as a means to tell a home to a willing buyer.

There's a seemingly a social status added to it. Students who have received a perfect score will garner the attention of the media, IQ social clubs, and, most importantly, prestigious universities. With such distinctions, it’s no surprise the SAT has become a pivotal part of American society.

The test is also one of the most misunderstood and misused documents in today’s educational system. Critics have pointed out several flaws in its ability to properly assess student knowledge and college readiness. It has also gone through several changes – including its name.

A close examination of the test reveals the type of fear – real or imagined-- students have for it.

In recent years, its importance has also come under a considerable amount of scrutiny. Even the very institutions it was created for, the colleges and universities, have lowered its value as a tool for determining admissions for likely candidates.

Still, millions of students around the country take the test, hoping it will be the deciding factor in their pursuit of higher education.

A close examination of the test reveals the type of fear – real or imagined-- students have for it. Also, it shows how hyped this test has become, thank in large part to its creator, the private company College Board. As a result, several myths have been associated with it.

Here is a look at several of them.

Myth #1: The SAT is an IQ test

Reality: The SAT is primarily a college entrance exam; however, it has been marketed as an IQ test by its creator. Also, some high IQ societies, such as Mensa, once used high scores as a way to accept new members. On top of that, the original name of the test (Scholastic Aptitude Test) gave credence to this belief.

In truth, the test is more associated with an assessment of standards (still, there’s criticism that it doesn’t do a good job in that field, either). Skills in math, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and writing are supposed to be assessed (or as the website Rational Wiki likes to put it: “It …consists of two multiple guess sections in English and Math).


There are some similarities. The SAT was created by United States psychologist Carl Brigham, one of several psychologists who worked on the Army Alpha and Beta tests – some of the first IQ tests to be devised. And, like these tests, the SAT's original intent was to eliminate test bias between people from different socioeconomic backgrounds (SAT, 2012).

The intended goals have remained the same; however, its outcome, name and test formats have changed.

Myth #2: SAT doesn’t discriminate

Reality: Despite its noble purpose, the test has been criticized for being biased. This accusation can be traced to its initial use in 1901 when it was given to 973 prep school students from three states (New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania) who were applying to Columbia University. Although the test would later be given to other groups of students in the coming years, some contend that the SAT used standards reflecting a high socioeconomic group.

Even today, cultural and gender bias has been leveled at the test. And, in most cases, those who do well on the SAT are often coming from the higher end of the socioeconomic spectrum.

Also, as many SAT prep tutors and instructors have pointed out, the test favored those with well-educated parents with professional degrees. Access to educational material, magazines and professional journals (especially medical and engineering journals) have played a big part in it, too..

Myth #3: The SAT predicts how well students will do in college

Reality: There is correlation (although not proven) that those who do extremely well on the SAT will have a successful first year of college as opposed to those who have lower scores. However, this is not true for the remaining college years.

A major complaint from test-takers was the information used in the SAT. Much of it was -- in their words -- useless. The vocabulary and math used in it was hardly used in colleges..

Furthermore, they feared it would force teachers to instruct students to write long formulaic and wordy essays rather than tight, concise and focused ones

The newest addition to the test, the written section, has been resoundingly criticized. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Writing Director Les Perelaman compared the SAT scores with the essay’s length. He discovered that longer essays consistently produced higher scores, despite its quality (SAT, 2012).

Perelaman and the National Council of Teachers of English lambasted the 25-minute portion of the writing exam. Furthermore, they feared it would force teachers to instruct students to write long formulaic and wordy essays rather than tight, concise and focused ones.

Myth #4: The SAT has never changed its format

Reality: Since its inception the SAT has changed format numerous times. In the beginning, it was an essay test focusing on subjects such as English, German, French, Latin, Greek, math, history, chemistry, and physics.

In 1926 – when it was officially given the name of Scholastic Aptitude Test – it had sections for definitions, math, classification, artificial language, antonyms, number series, analogies, logical inference, and a paragraph reading section. This was now a timed test in which 315 questions had to be answered in little over 90 minutes.

Math was temporarily eliminated in 1928. It would briefly return in the 1930s as one of two separate sections (the other one was the verbal section), and then vanished again until 1942 when it was reintroduced with multiple choice questions.

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Paragraph-reading comprehension section was eliminated in 1946 and replaced with a broader reading comprehension section in the verbal part of the test (the passages were usually truncated essays that were condensed into one long paragraph).

The next major changes came in the 1990s when more emphasis was placed on reading passages. This led to the elimination of the antonym questions. Also some non-multiple choice questions returned to the math section.

In 2005, the Writing section was added. In part, these changes were result of pressures from college administrators, teacher organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, education researchers, and other groups.

Myth #5: The acronym for SAT stands for Scholastic Aptitude Test

Reality: It’s an empty acronym. It doesn’t stand for anything, anymore. At one time it was known as Scholastic Aptitude Test because it was viewed in the same scope as an IQ test. Then, as it was revealed not to be such a test, the name was changed to Scholastic Assessment Test. When it was revealed that the test was not reflecting state educational standards, the name changed again. Today, as of this writing, the College Board has dumped the name, keeping only the acronym.

The name change may seem minor; however, it reflects a new reality for the test, which leads to the final myth.

Myth #6: The SAT is still a respected college entrance exam

Reality: Its status has dropped considerably. In fact, some universities such as the University of California system have deemed them unreliable in measuring a student’s academic abilities and skills. Other schools across the country -- public and private -- have dumped them, completely.

The test was always part of the requirements rather than the only tool used for college admissions. With its documented problems, the SAT will possibly go through some more changes or be eliminated all together as other tests emerge.

SAT may have been a part of the American student’s rite of passage, but it may become history.

Myth # 7: Points For Your Name

Realitiy: Nope!

One interesting myth associated with the SAT is the automatic 200 points given to test-takers who merely – and correctly – write their name on the document. This myth was so popular that test-takers would whisper this to their peers before taking the test or during breaks. Even this writer can recall hearing other test-takers talking about it before and after the exam.

Snopes.Com, a popular website that investigates the validity of such myths has labeled it “false”. Sorry, test-takers no easy points on this test.

SAT Poll

Should the SAT be abolished?

See results

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Dean Traylor


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