The SAT used to be an acronym for "Scholastic Aptitude Test," which translates into English as "School ability test." The theory was that the test measured the extent to which a graduating high school student would academically flourish (read: get good grades) throughout college. The flaw was that there was no meaningful correlation between test scores and actual performance. The catalyst that made the flaw into a problem was bad press.

So they changed the acronym in an attempt to obfuscate the problem out of existence. They changed it to "Scholastic Assessment Test," which translates into English as "School test test." That, they figured, would be obscure enough to deflect all allegations of false advertising. The flaw was that "School test test" doesn't mean anything. All tests are, after all, assessments, and all they'd done was cover the "A" in the acronymn with a blinding redundancy.

But it didn't blind the press. And when national events reached a lull, popular media returned to its list of pre-canned scandals. Unfortunately for the makers of the SAT, standardized testing was on that list. After drawing some more heat for a totally meaningless name, they dropped all pretenses. SAT, as it currently stands, does not stand for anything. It is a mere combination of three letters that when put in order refer to the test high school students take, much like the letters C, A, and T collectively refer to a small, domesticated feline. It's only a matter of time until the media once agains turns on the heat, and maybe ETS will go so far as to drop that troublesome "A" altogether. What I don't think they'll do is solve the underlying problem.

Y'see, no one can agree precisely what the SAT measures. It's not overall intelligence; as so many noders have pointed out, intelligence should not rise with Princeton Review courses whereas SAT scores most certainly do (by an average of 105 points out of 1400; it's significant). And ETS, at least, denies that the SAT is a content-based test, because if they didn't, they'd be obliged to provide a syllabus. So, they try to dodge the problem by insisting that prep courses in fact cannot help your score. Here's why that's funny:

  • The Princeton Review does help scores, and in a provable, statistically significant way.
  • They refuse to explicitly classify the SAT as an intelligence test despite their denial that preparation helps.
  • They offer their own SAT prep course, for a price, and it's not even as effective as the alternatives!

So, every year they come out with a test they cannot name with a purpose they cannot disclose. Yet colleges and universities nationwide continue to rely on it as an important factor in the admissions process. Even the admission officers themselves will admit to you that the situation is downright absurd, provided they trust that you will not quote them. And that suggests the obvious question: Why the hell do they even count the SAT?

The obvious question serves a less obvious answer: because of a pernicious publication called The US News College Rankings. One of the qualifications US News uses in determining a college's relative worth is the interquartile range of its students' SAT scores. Both students and colleges care about prestige, and prestige comes increasingly from US News's ranking. Let me explain. Colleges want to be as high on the list as possible. Then, students who are most driven by colleges' rankings on that list will apply mostly to the schools at the top. Those schools at the top will then determine admission based to a large extent on SAT scores so as to remain competitive on the list, and suddenly a nameless, meaningless test is a huge factor in admission.

So how does such a patently ridiculous system get fixed? Well, you can't expect students to stop caring about their SAT scores as long as they remain an important factor in admission decisions. And you can't expect colleges to stop counting them in their decisions as long as they help determine standing on the College Ranking. And you can't expect US News to change a system that gets them a lot of money; just imagine how much they must make every year on every high-schooler's yuppie family buying a copy of their annual college magazine. And it's going to keep making them a lot of money as long as students applying to college apply predominantly to the top colleges on the Rankings. It's a cyclical mechanism: students support the top colleges, the top colleges support the Rankings, and the Rankings support the SAT and the top colleges. So until high school students as a whole stop letting US News tell them where to go for their $130,000+ college education, the SAT isn't going anywhere.

Come: stare the demons in the eye. Gander at the cyberspacial faces of those organizations that hold our nation's children in a lucrative grip of absurdity:

  • US News College Rankings: http://www.usnews.com/usnews/edu/college/rankings/rankindex.htm
  • Educational Testing Services ("ETS"): http://www.ets.org/
  • The College Board: http://www.collegeboard.com/

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