Reflections on a Century of College Admissions Tests


Standardized testing for college admissions has grown exponentially since the first administration of the old “College Boards” in 1901. This paper surveys major developments since then: the introduction of the “Scholastic Aptitude Test” in 1926, designed to tap students’ general analytic ability; E.F. Lindquist’s creation of the ACT in 1959 as a competitor to the SAT, intended as a measure of achievement rather than ability; the renewed interest on the part of some leading colleges and universities in subject-specific assessments such as the SAT Subject Tests and Advanced Placement exams; and current efforts to adapt K-12 standards-based tests for use in college admissions. Looking back at the evolution of admissions tests, it is evident that we have come full circle to a renewed appreciation for the value of achievement tests. The original College Boards started out as achievement tests, designed to assess students’ mastery of college-preparatory subjects. A century of admissions testing has taught us that this initial premise may have been sounder than anyone realized at the time. But the journey has been useful, since we now have much better understanding of why assessment of achievement and curriculum mastery remains vital as a paradigm for admissions testing. Curriculum-based achievement tests are the fairest and most effective assessments for college admissions and have important incentive or “signaling effects” for our K-12 schools as well: They help reinforce a rigorous academic curriculum and create better alignment of teaching, learning, and assessment all along the pathway from high school to college.

Publication date: 
April 1, 2009
Publication type: 
Research and Occasional Papers Series (ROPS)
Reflections on a Century of College Admissions Tests by Richard C. Atkinson and Saul Geiser. CSHE.4.2009 (April 2009)