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How College Admissions Tests Work

Origins of College Admissions Tests

The College Board, a not-for-profit organization, was founded in 1900. It assists more than 7 million students a year in areas such as higher education preparation, selection, assessment and financial aid, and administrates the following exams:

  • The SAT (informally, the SAT I)
  • The SAT Subject Tests (informally, the SAT II), which are 20 subject-area entrance exams required by some college programs
  • The PSAT/NMSQT (Preliminary SAT; National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test)
  • More than 30 AP courses and exams, offered by high schools for college credit

In 1926, the College Board launched the SAT (then known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test). Currently, ETS, a nonprofit test developer, creates and analyzes the test for the College Board. Since its inception, the SAT has been modified several times due to issues such as:

  • Time limits: During the first decades of the SAT, the test was designed so most students would not be able to complete it.
  • Diversity: In the early days of the SAT, most test takers were young white men, but changes have since been made to ensure that questions are fair for all people taking the test.
  • Over-preparation: The SAT measures aptitude rather than achievement, so test designers make adjustments to discourage practice effects. For example, analogy and antonym questions were once added since practice was less likely to affect those results.
  • Reliability: Designers want to make certain that SAT results are comparable from year to year.

[source: Lawrence]

Although the College Board purports the SAT to be the most "widely used college admission exam" [source: College Board: Home], the ACT's creators claim it is the most "widely accepted college entrance exam" [source: ACT: Accepted]. This test is created and distributed by an organization also known as ACT (formerly, American College Testing), a not-for profit group serving both business and educational needs. Other ACT products include homeschooling materials and assessments, middle school and high school achievement tests and college placement tests.

In 1959, college enrollment was increasing in the United States. American College Testing was founded to devise an alternative to the SAT and serve a more academically diverse applicant population. In the 1990s, ACT expanded to include business assessment and analysis.

A major revision to the ACT test occurred in 2005 with the inclusion of an optional writing test. This was in response to the University of California's (UC) new admissions requirement of a writing sample, since the UC system represents a large percentage of students taking college entrance exams [source: ACT: Writing Component].

That's a little background on the SAT and ACT. Up next, we'll look at details on test format and content.