Intelligence as a Key Factor in the Evolution of the SAT

The SAT has played a crucial role in American education since it was first introduced. This article takes a closer look at the SAT's history, its complex relationship with IQ, and how it has changed over time. Originally designed to measure academic ability, the SAT's connection to IQ has had a significant impact on educational practices and policies. Over the years, the test has been heavily scrutinized and revised, mirroring shifts in society and education. This study provides a detailed analysis of the SAT's journey, highlighting its function as both an academic and cognitive assessment tool. The evolution of the SAT and its implications for educational fairness and policy are thoroughly examined, shedding light on the intricate link between standardized testing and human intelligence.

SAT, IQ, standardized testing, intelligence, educational policy, sociocultural bias, pedagogical critiques, socio-economic impact, educational practices

Educational evaluation has always struggled with the challenge of fairly assessing human cognition. The early 20th century, influenced by the rise of psychometrics and experimental psychology, saw standardized testing as a way to bring objectivity to education (Messick, 1988).

Historical writings from scholars like Quintilian highlighted the importance of comprehensive evaluation in education. With the introduction of statistical methods by figures like Spearman (1904) and the socio-political needs of the time, standardized testing gained prominence (Frey, 2018). The idea was that standardized tests could provide a fair measure of individual performance and academic potential (Kaplan & Saccuzzo, 2017).

However, standardized testing has faced criticism for its potential to oversimplify human intellect into a single score (Nisbett et al., 2012). Despite this, the practicality of standardized metrics in large-scale educational assessment remains clear.

The SAT, in particular, has a significant history. It was created in the early 20th century to promote meritocracy in elite college admissions and address educational disparities (Lemann, 1999). Over time, it has become a key tool for many higher education institutions in the U.S. (Zwick, 2004). Numerous studies have validated the SAT's ability to predict academic success in higher education (Camara & Echternacht, 2000; Kobrin et al., 2008). In the competitive world of college admissions, the SAT offers a standardized measure for comparing applicants (Atkinson & Geiser, 2009).

The SAT's influence extends beyond college admissions. It is often seen as an indicator of both academic and intellectual ability (Crouse & Trusheim, 1988). In various fields, from academia to industry, SAT scores are sometimes used to assess cognitive skills.

The link between the SAT and IQ goes beyond academic interest, delving into the nature of human cognition. The SAT and IQ tests serve as contemporary points of reference in understanding and measuring intelligence (Kant, 1781/1998). This connection is not coincidental. Carl Brigham, who developed the SAT, drew from psychometric theories and intelligence research (Brigham, 1923). The SAT was designed to measure aptitude in a way that reflected traditional IQ tests (Frey & Detterman, 2004). Research has shown a strong correlation between SAT scores and general intelligence, indicating the SAT's potential as an indirect measure of cognitive ability (Frey & Detterman, 2004).

This relationship between the SAT and IQ has important implications. It provides educators and psychologists with insights into cognitive patterns and academic tendencies. It also highlights the interplay between genetics and environment in intellectual development (Neisser et al., 1996). Furthermore, it prompts discussions about educational fairness and the potential biases in standardized testing (Herrnstein & Murray, 1994).

Historical Roots and Early Development of the SAT

The SAT emerged in the early 20th century, during debates about meritocracy and intellectual potential. It was created to objectively identify academic ability among university applicants (Lemann, 1999).

The College Board, which developed the SAT, aimed to create a test free from socio-economic and cultural biases prevalent in other assessments of the time. Their goal was to democratize access to elite educational institutions, focusing on merit rather than background or wealth (Lemann, 1999). The SAT was designed to assess deeper cognitive abilities rather than just rote learning, providing a standardized measure across different high school curricula (Brigham, 1923).

From its early days, the SAT was influenced by the field of intelligence testing, which sought to measure cognitive capacities (Ayres, 1911). This movement aimed to identify strengths and areas for growth in individuals, especially in educational settings (Sternberg, 2003).

Carl Brigham, a key figure in the development of the SAT, embraced these psychometric approaches. Unlike other exams of the time that focused on memorization, Brigham envisioned a test that measured analytical and reasoning skills, which he believed were more predictive of academic success (Brigham, 1923). The SAT aimed to be fair, minimizing the impact of socio-economic or cultural disparities, reflecting an Enlightenment-driven pursuit of knowledge and understanding (Frey & Detterman, 2004).

However, the SAT's principles faced real-world challenges. While its goals were commendable, the test became a subject of debate and scrutiny over time. The SAT's connection to IQ testing in the early 20th century is evident. Carl Brigham contributed to the Army Alpha and Beta tests, early efforts to assess the intellectual abilities of World War I soldiers (Brigham, 1923). He brought this ethos to the SAT, aiming to create a test that reflected innate learning abilities rather than accumulated knowledge (Frey & Detterman, 2004).

Despite the praise for IQ tests' objectivity, they faced criticism for cultural biases and their focus on specific cognitive areas (Neisser et al., 1996). The SAT, with its similarities to IQ tests, also faced these critiques, particularly regarding its claim to be a universal and unbiased measure.

SAT and IQ: A Closer Look

The connection between the SAT and IQ has deep historical roots, influenced by Carl Brigham's work and psychometric theories (Brigham, 1923). Studies have shown a strong correlation between SAT scores and general intelligence (g). Frey and Detterman's (2004) meta-analysis found significant associations between SAT scores and g, with correlations often exceeding .70. This indicates that individuals who perform well on IQ tests tend to do well on the SAT. Similar findings have been seen when comparing SAT results with other intelligence scales like the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS) (Wechsler, 1955) and the Raven's Progressive Matrices (RPM) (Raven et al., 2008).

Jouve (2023) provided further insights into the SAT's cognitive domains. When compared with the Jouve-Cerebrals Test of Induction (JCTI), which measures inductive reasoning, significant correlations emerged, highlighting the SAT's alignment with abstract reasoning abilities. For instance, correlations of .79 and .84 were found between the SAT Composite and SAT Mathematical Reasoning with the JCTI, respectively (Jouve, 2023a). A strong correlation of .73 was also noted between the SAT and the verbal ability test "I Am a Word" (IAW) (Jouve, 2023b).

The SAT also showed strong associations with the Jouve Cerebrals Crystallized Educational Scale (JCCES) Crystallized Educational Index (CEI), a proxy for "verbal" IQ, with correlations reaching .86 post-2005 (Jouve, 2010). This further supports the SAT's alignment with general reasoning abilities.

Studies have shown that SAT scores can predict intelligence metrics even in older age, suggesting the stability of cognitive abilities over time (Deary et al., 2007). This raises questions about the shared components of the SAT and IQ tests. The SAT, with its focus on mathematical, verbal, and reasoning skills, may reflect the core elements of general intelligence. Sternberg (2006) suggests that the SAT primarily measures analytical intelligence, which overlaps significantly with traditional IQ measures.

The SAT's creation during a period of intense psychometric and intelligence research deeply influenced its design (Lemann, 1999). Given this historical context, the SAT's questions and cognitive requirements align closely with traditional intelligence assessments. The role of 'g' or general intelligence is central to both the SAT and IQ tests. High 'g' facilitates success on both the SAT and IQ evaluations (Deary et al., 2007).

The rigorous preparation for the SAT also enhances skills assessed by IQ tests, reinforcing the link between SAT and IQ scores (Neisser et al., 1996).

However, viewing the SAT as a surrogate IQ test requires careful consideration. Cognitive psychology principles, like the structuralist paradigm, highlight common cognitive processes in both the SAT and IQ tests (Fodor, 1983). Cattell's (1971) concepts of fluid and crystallized intelligence also provide a useful framework. The SAT's diverse questions tap into both areas, similar to comprehensive IQ tests. Yet, Bourdieu's (1986) critique suggests the SAT may also reflect socio-cultural capital, especially in the American education system.

The SAT and IQ tests have different underlying philosophies. The SAT is an achievement test measuring college readiness, while IQ tests aim to measure innate cognitive ability (Kaplan & Saccuzzo, 2017). This distinction is crucial when interpreting results.

The SAT's influence on educational policies has been significant. Originating in the belief in objective intelligence evaluation, the SAT was intended to democratize higher education access (Lemann, 1999). However, equating SAT scores with innate intelligence can obscure the broader goals of education, such as developing well-rounded, critical thinkers (Dewey, 1916). The relationship between SAT and IQ highlights the challenges and opportunities in educational assessment and policy.

Controversies and Criticisms: Winds of Change

Standardized testing, including the SAT, is closely tied to sociocultural factors like bias, socio-economic disparities, and cultural capital. These elements contribute to the ongoing debate about the fairness and effectiveness of these tests.

Early psychometricians like Ebbinghaus (1885), despite their groundbreaking work, often unintentionally reinforced a Eurocentric view of cognition. This perspective led to cultural biases in test design. Vygotsky (1978) further emphasized that intelligence cannot be separated from its sociocultural context.

Socio-economic factors also play a significant role. Access to preparatory resources varies greatly, leading to debates about fairness. Bourdieu's (1986) work on forms of capital explains how economic resources influence cultural and symbolic capital, impacting test outcomes. Educational inequities, as highlighted by Coleman et al. (1966), show the challenges faced by underprivileged students.

Bourdieu and Passeron (1977) discussed cultural capital, which suggests standardized tests favor individuals from dominant cultural backgrounds, reinforcing societal hierarchies. Understanding standardized testing requires navigating these biases and disparities to ensure fair assessments.

The dominance of standardized tests has shaped educational practices, sometimes leading to curricula focused on test preparation (Popham, 2001). This can stifle creativity (Robinson, 2001) and hinder deeper understanding (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1987). There's a growing call for holistic assessments that consider cognitive, affective, and moral competencies, reflecting the ideas of philosophers like Seneca (Long & Sedley, 1987).

The validity of standardized tests as measures of intelligence or academic ability is often debated. Scholars like John Stuart Mill and Jean Piaget argue that intelligence is multifaceted and cannot be fully captured by a single metric. Sternberg's (1985) triarchic theory and Gardner's (1983) theory of multiple intelligences highlight the diverse aspects of cognitive abilities, many of which are not measured by traditional tests.

In conclusion, education should encompass more than just cognitive skills, including ethical virtues, resilience, and interpersonal abilities, as Aristotle discussed in "Nicomachean Ethics" (Kraut, 1989). Overemphasis on standardized tests can overlook this comprehensive educational vision.

The SAT's Evolution: Adapting Over Time

The SAT has changed over the years, reflecting educational trends, societal needs, and scientific understanding (Lemann, 1999).

First introduced in 1926, the SAT was influenced by early 20th-century IQ testing. It aimed to be an unbiased measure of academic potential. However, it retained some cognitive biases from its IQ test roots (Lemann, 1999).

In the late 20th century, the SAT underwent major changes. For example, in 1994, antonym questions were replaced with passage-based ones to better assess contextual comprehension (Camara & Kimmel, 2005). In 2005, a writing section was added to emphasize communication skills, though it became optional in 2016 due to concerns about its relevance and predictive validity.

The math section also evolved, incorporating data interpretation and advanced topics like trigonometry to align with high school curricula (Santelices & Wilson, 2010). The scoring system reverted to a 1600-point scale in 2016, with the essay scored separately.

These changes reflect the influence of societal, institutional, and pedagogical factors. The College Board has worked to broaden access to higher education, such as through its 2014 partnership with Khan Academy to provide free test preparation (Balf, 2014). The civil rights and feminist movements also highlighted potential biases in testing, leading to significant revisions (Freedle, 2003; Rosser, 1989).

Pedagogically, theories like Gardner's (1983) multiple intelligences have pushed the SAT away from rote learning. Competition from other tests, like the ACT, has also influenced its updates (Soares, 2012).

Addressing the Criticisms

Critics often claim the SAT has cultural and socio-economic biases, favoring certain demographic groups (Lemann, 1999). However, the SAT is designed to minimize these biases through rigorous calibration (Jensen, 1980). The College Board continuously updates the test to reflect educational changes.

Another criticism is that the SAT doesn't predict college success beyond the freshman year (Atkinson & Geiser, 2009). However, many studies have shown the SAT's ability to predict both initial academic performance and later educational outcomes (Camara & Echternacht, 2000).

Some argue the SAT oversimplifies human potential into a single score. It's important to understand that the SAT is not meant to capture all aspects of human ability but to provide a reliable measure within its scope, supported by extensive research (Kobrin et al., 2008).

As skepticism of the SAT grows, there's a push for alternative assessment methods like portfolio evaluations and character skill appraisals. While these methods offer a broader view, they have their own challenges.

Portfolio assessments provide a comprehensive view of students' achievements but struggle with standardization. Subjective evaluation of varied submissions can reintroduce biases.

Character skill appraisals, measuring traits like resilience, are important but difficult to standardize. These traits can vary across developmental stages and cultures, complicating their use in assessments.

Subject-specific assessments highlight specialized skills but may overlook the importance of interdisciplinary learning (Berlin, 1992).

In the excitement for reform, it's essential to carefully consider potential new issues that might arise. Broad criticisms of the SAT should be grounded in empirical evidence and logical analysis, recognizing its evolution and current form (Geary, 2005).

The SAT, like all assessment tools, adapts to reflect educational changes and societal needs. Critiques based on past versions may not apply to its current form, as the test continually evolves.

Distinguishing between descriptive and normative criticisms is key. For example, descriptive criticisms may highlight gender disparities in SAT outcomes, while normative criticisms address ethical implications.


The history of the SAT is closely linked to the concept of IQ. This connection stems from early 20th-century psychometric theories aimed at understanding human cognitive abilities. The relationship between SAT scores and general intelligence (g) is complex and rooted in foundational principles, providing insights into cognitive assessment and its broader implications.

The SAT and IQ tests go beyond mere scores, reflecting broader views on human potential and how society measures and nurtures it. Understanding intelligence and academic aptitude requires acknowledging their complexities and avoiding reductionist approaches.

As knowledge and educational practices evolve, so must our assessment tools. The SAT, like all constructs, must adapt to reflect changes in curricula, societal values, and our understanding of cognition. Ensuring these tools are fair and accessible is essential.

The SAT's role in education highlights the challenge of balancing its strengths and limitations. It's important to view the SAT as a multifaceted tool influenced by historical, psychological, and pedagogical factors. Constructive inquiry and balanced critique will foster a meaningful discourse on its role in education.


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Author: Jouve, X.
Publication: 2023