The SAT is an Excellent Test with an Identity Crisis

There is no doubt that the SAT is a well-written test. Certainly, ETS has proven its ability to write excellent tests over the years, tests ranging from ACES to AP to SAT to TOEFL. But of all its tests, SAT is the one that receives the most attention and is most regularly placed under the microscope. While I would argue that the SAT is well written, I would also tell you that it suffers from an identity crisis.

Over the years, the letters S–A-T have stood for many things:

  • Scholastic Assessment Test
  • Scholastic Achievement Test
  • Scholastic Aptitude Test
  • SAT (letters stand for nothing)

This fact alone should tell you something.  Even the College Board can’t make up its mind about what the test actually measures. But that does not really matter. The SAT is an excellent test (from a test writer’s perspective) and a great tool to compare students from across the country. Over the years, the SAT has served as a valid predictor of college success. Perfect? No. Good? Absolutely. Why? Because it tests the exact skills that students need to succeed in college: reading, writing and (sometimes) math.

Recently speaking to a group of parents, I made the point that their sons and daughters would have to be something “special” in order to gain admission into America’s top colleges, if that was their goal. However I also made the point that something that can differentiate one student from another is great reading skills and writing skills.


Reading is how you gather data. Writing is how you pass on that data to others. While most people can perform both of these skills, few do it exceptionally well. Reading is often done as a mechanical exercise rather than as a mental exercise. The physical action of eyes moving across a page does not constitute reading. Comprehension and assimilation of information gathered from text is a more accurate definition. As for writing, there are so few great writers out there that a student can easily distinguish himself by learning to write masterfully.

As ETS and the College Board convene to design the newest version of the SAT, we are optimistic that reading and writing will remain the focus, because those two skills represent the very core of the educational experience. While we wait with baited breath for the white smoke to rise in the east, we hope that that day comes sooner rather than later, so that we may get on with the work of designing the next generation of strategies to master it.