Would You Pass the Very First SAT?

In Spring 2016, College Board will yet again roll out a revised version of the SAT Test. It is reported to mirror the coursework a student would encounter in high school and will return to a 1600 scale and an optional essay. The test has been redesigned, revised, and reworked continuously for decades. Let’s explore the history of the SAT and pose the question, “What was the first SAT like?”

At the turn of the 20th century, a group of northeastern colleges convened at Columbia University in an effort to set standards for secondary school education and to create an examinations for college-bound students in a variety of subjects. The result? The College Entrance Examination Board (CEEB), a company that has lasted over a century and exists today as the College Board.

Originally, all the college examinations were subject tests, ranging from Botany to Latin, similar to the SAT Subject Tests that are administered today. However, instead of multiple choice questions and an 800-point scale, the tests consisted entirely of essay questions and were scored on a scale from “excellent” to “very poor” in a fashion similar to the modern AP exams.

The CEEB’s model, however, morphed slightly in 1926 when the very first SAT (back then, an acronym for Scholastic Aptitude Test) was created by a Princeton psychologist named Carl Brigham, who had previously aided the US Army in rewriting the examinations for officer candidates. On June 23, 1926, just over eight thousand students took the test.

For the most part, the 1926 SAT bore a closer resemblance to an IQ test than to the more familiar math, reading, and writing questions of today’s SAT. It included nine “sub-tests,” each of which examined a different skill set; logical inferences, analogies, and identifying patterns in number series. There were no “bubbles” to fill in or essay section. Most questions could be answered with a number, word, or brief phrase.

Additionally, there was a section that tested students’ ability to learn vocabulary and grammatical rules…in a made-up language. Students were asked to translate a series of sentences in an artificial language into English. In another subtest, students were provided with definitions from a variety of subjects with a corresponding number of words in alphabetical order. They were instructed to match each definition with the correct term in the list of words.

The biggest difference, however, was the race against the clock. Compared with today’s test of 3 hours and 45 minutes, the SAT in 1926 allowed only 97 minutes to answer 315 questions. This requires a rate of 3 questions per minute, which is unthinkable given the amount of time spent just to read the directions for each subtest.

So whether you’ve just recently taken the SAT or you’re about to join the millions who have, just remember you’re not the first to wrestle through the long lists of vocabulary words and math problems in the hopes earning a ticket to your dream college. If anything, the test today is more manageable than it was some 88 years ago!

Still need to take the SAT? We run a free online SAT prep seminar every few weeks. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

Michael Rothberg is a Veritas Prep SAT instructor. He began tutoring his freshman year of college and is excited to help students conquer the SAT by unlocking their academic potential. Currently a rising sophomore at Harvard University, he is a Cognitive Neuroscience and Evolutionary Psychology major and Staff Reporter at the Harvard Crimson.