What Does the SAT Measure?

Statistics show that the SAT successfully predicts 18% of the variance in first year college grades. By comparison, the high school grade point average (GPA) predicts 20% of the variance in first year grades. Together, the combination of SAT and GPA predicts around 25% of the variance in first year grades. These numbers go down sharply each year after and have marginal value in projecting a college student's graduating GPA.

The design of the SAT was based on the IQ test-IQ standing for "intelligence quotient," or the ratio of mental to physical age. The French psychologist Alfred Binet created the first test of intelligence in 1905. It was to be used to identify slow learners so that teachers could give them special attention.

The SAT was first administered to a group of students in 1926 and was called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the word "aptitude" signifying that the test was designed to measure an innate ability, rather than knowledge acquired through schooling-where wealthy students at elite preparatory schools would have an unfair advantage. Harvard University first employed the test as a means of identifying the potential abilities of scholarship applicants.

"When these tests were originally developed," said Harvard social policy professor Christopher Jencks, "people really believed that if they did the job right they would be able to measure this sort of underlying, biological potential. And they often called it aptitude, sometimes they called it genes, sometimes intelligence."

Later, the name of the test was changed to "Scholastic Assessment Test," and since 1994, the test administered by The College Board has been referred to as simply the "SAT"-illustrating the uncertainty surrounding what exactly the test measures. (We are referring only to the SAT I: Reasoning Test, not to the SAT II Subject Tests.)

According to Wayne Camara, director of the Office of Research at The College Board, the SAT measures "developed reasoning," a quality he describes as the skills that students develop not only in school but also outside of school. The College Board says that the best way to prepare for the SAT is to read a lot and to take rigorous academic courses.