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Dear Mitch,

Yesterday or the day before you answered a question about the SAT exam.  The question was "How much does the score really matter?", and I liked your in-depth answer (it's unusual of me these days to make it all the way through even a page without getting bored, normally.)

I have another question I've always wanted to know but never got a satisfactory answer to it.  I was wondering if you knew (and something tells me you will!)

My question is what is the real PURPOSE of the exam, and why and when did it come into existence.  My question stems from the fact that I am a father of a boy who took the test last year, didn't do so well, but ended up getting into a decent college, even if it wasn't his first choice.  I personally believe that since he has so many outstanding characteristics, and excellent grades, it was his score on that darn test that turned out to be his undoing.

And to make matters worse, in my day we didn't have to take this test because it simply did not exist.  Instead, from what I recall, you just had to take an entrance exam for whichever school you wished to go. 


Mr. B. Capote


Dear Mr. B. Capote,

You are correct that the test did not always exist.  (If I wanted to be flippant about the whole thing I could add that there was also a time when toaster ovens, vaccines, and televisions did not exist, but that is not, of course, the kind of response you are looking for).

First, the purpose of the test is a legitimate one, even with all the well-known drawbacks that students and many educators like to discuss and write about.  That purpose is this:  When you think of all the high schools spread around the world (remember that American colleges and universities are perfectly willing and happy to accept people from other nations), it is impossible for there to be consistent meaning to two different report cards or grade point averages that look exactly the same; some schools are more reluctant to give students poor grades, even if that student deserves them based on his/her performance.  As a teacher, I, for one, can tell you that it is can be heart-wrenching to fail a student who is a point or two away from passing a class when his/her personal situation is more challenging than anyone else's in his class or more of a challenge than anyone his age should have to endure.  And to bring the point of inconsistency home, even within the same school, when students receive their computer printout in the mail telling them which teacher of two or three possible choices they are assigned for a particular subject, you can practically hear some stomachs drop, while feeling others' hearts and spirirts suddenly lifted.  Why?  Well, sometimes one teacher of a subject is simply more effective/gifted at teaching the required material than another, or is still fresh and excited while his/her peer is counting the days until his/her retirement.  But just as often, the two teachers in question could be of equal ability and enthusiasm, but, for some reason, one of them is a "tougher grader" than the other, and this makes one class' grades either more meaningful or less likely to be stellar than another's.  How could any college know that within the same school for the exact same "class" one person's B+ is evidence of greater performance than another student's A or even A+, merely because of the random assignment of teachers.  More commonly, though, there is the case of the expensive private school whose teachers are reluctant to give a student poor grades, when the parents are paying their salaries (albeit indirectly)...  If an expensive private school were to give a student lower grades than the student and family believe are warranted, how is a college to know that those grades are at least of equal value as the higher grades of that student's peer in the nearby public school.

And many schools no longer even give "grades" in the old-fasioned A-F mode, but give "S" for the highest grade ("satisfactory"), "U" for the lowest grade -- ("unsatisfactory") and "NFW" for the middle of the range, for "Needs Further Work".

Scores on the SAT exam are among the few CONSISTENT pieces of information that levels the playing field so that the people on the college admission committees, who tend to work very hard sorting through all the different kinds of information, have in the way of a truly consistent measure.

Interestingly, the exam changed substantially in 2005 to include more material from standard "schoolwork" under the theory that this would be a better source of information on how strong a student's grasp is on certain basics that a high school graduate should have.  They were also operating under the idea that this would reduce the "tutorability" of the test and be a truer indication of how students are likely to do 'naturally', as well as how strongly students have grasped their previous schoolwork.  Ironically, the changes they made actually made the test MORE 'tutorable', but the reasons for that are a bit more complicated to cover in this one response and will be saved for another day.

The final irony, is the horrible, horrifying, and egregious reason that the test was initially instituted.  Although no one likes to discuss this particular aspect of the test's beginnings, a small group of admissions officers from the Ivy League schools wondered what could be done to reduce the number of Jewish people they would have to grant admission to their schools.  Their idea was that while the traditional cliched Ivy student from a generation or two ago spent a portion of his/her time pursuing sports (sailing, for example, was mentioned, if I recall), and enjoyed a 'full life' of socializing and vacationing, they felt that the new wave of Jewish immigrants were going home every day and studying, thereby obtaining grades equal to or better than their gentile peers.  They felt that the Jewish people were too obsessed with studying and performing well, leaving their non-Jewish classmates unable to obtain the same grades.  So they devised the idea of coming up with an exam that was "unstudyable", i.e., an exam that would distinguish the natural thinkers from those who had surpassed them by 'over-studying' and working an 'unnatural' amount.

When this was presented (in softer terms, of course, to the public), there was a young man (who happened to be Jewish), living in Brooklyn, New York, whose name was Stanley Kaplan.  He recently passed away, but when he began, he was quoted as saying, "An exam that cannot be studied for?  I never heard of such a thing and find it incomprehenisible."  So, from the basement of his parents' modest house in Brooklyn, New York, as his mother served students chicken soup she made in the kitchen, he would work with students who also felt any test could be tackled and studied for, even if it was designed to preclude such preparation.  Stanley Kaplan was a visionary, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Incidentally, everything I have written here about the test and its origins and reason for being has been published in a book about the exam and its history.  The full title of the book escapes me at the moment, but can be located if you type in "The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy".  In that book, anyone interested in reading the details will be able to do so.  For the purpose of full disclosure, you will also be able to find just as many articles and transcripts of interviews that claim the exam was instituted for the purpose of making sure that "scholarship" students, such as "minorities and others who are 'capable' but who have attended public high schools, have an opportunity to gain admission to the Ivy League schools," so if this is a subject that really interests you greatly, then try to read everything you can find that was recorded and/or published at the time, and since that time.  Also, of course, always take note of who the author of the piece is; sometimes an article's author can indicate a bias that puts the entire passage in a perspective you might not have otherwise considered.

As to when the test was first given, that exact date escapes my aging memory as well, but it was some time in the 1950's.

I hope you found this interesting, and I hope it helps you understand the current situation.

Mathematically yours,