The SAT: Questions and Answers

What Is the SAT?

The SAT Reasoning Test is this nation’s oldest, most widely used — and misused — college entrance exam. The SAT is composed of three sections, “Critical Reading,” “Mathematics,” and “Writing,” each scored on a 200-800 point scale. The 171 questions are nearly all multiple-choice; the exam now includes one brief essay, and ten math questions require students to “grid in” the answer. By design, the test is “speeded” which means that many test takers are unable to finish all the questions.

The SAT Subject Tests, formerly “Achievement Tests”, are one-hour subject exams, entirely in a multiple-choice format. The Educational Testing Service (ETS), under contract to the College Board, is the primary producer and administrator of the SAT. Pearson Educational Measurement is responsible for scoring multiple-choice items and the essay.

Examples of Misuse:


Several states impose SAT minimum score requirements on students hoping to qualify for taxpayer-funded scholarships. Using cut-off scores for such high-stakes decisions is a clear violation of the test-makers’ guidelines. This practice disproportionately impacts minority students who as a group tend to score lower than white students on the SAT. The result is these students lose out on millions of dollars in financial assistance.

National Merit Scholarships use Preliminary SAT (nearly identical to the SAT) scores as the sole criterion to select semifinalists. The resultant pool has historically been predominantly male because boys score higher on the PSAT even though girls earn higher grades in high school (and college). In 1993, FairTest filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) charging the test-makers with illegally assisting gender bias. As part of a settlement with OCR, ETS and the College Board agreed to add a new multiple-choice “writing” component to the PSAT. This simple change in test format significantly increased the percentage of National Merit semifinalists who are female, but girls are still cheated out of a fair share of awards by bias in the unreformed portions of the exam.

Gifted and Talented Programs:

Many special programs for the “gifted and talented,” such as the Johns Hopkins Center for the Advancement of Academically Talented Youth, use the SAT or similar tests to select participants. Not surprisingly, girls and minorities are often underrepresented in these accelerated programs.

SAT Bias

The SAT consistently under-predicts the performance of females in college and over-predicts the performance of males. Although females earn higher grades in high school and college, their SAT scores were 26 points lower in 2006. College Board research has shown that both the Critical Reading and Math portions of the test under-predict girls’ college performance. A 1994 ETS study found that, on average, males scored 33 points higher on the SAT-Math than females who earn the same grades in the same college math courses. Analyses of SAT gender bias cite several causes including the test’s emphasis on speed over sustained reasoning and its multiple-choice format. Mathematics tests in other countries that require solutions to long problems appeared unbiased with respect to gender.

Bilingual Students

The speeded nature of the SAT imposes an unfair burden on students for whom English is not the first language. Research suggests that the SAT does not predict Hispanic students’ first-year college grades as accurately as it does white students’ grades. One study found that even for bilingual students whose best language was English the SAT underpredicted college performance.

Impact of SAT Use on Minorities

African American, Latino, new Asian immigrant and many other minority test-takers score significantly lower than white students. Rigid use of SATs for admissions will produce freshman classes with very few minorities and with no appreciable gain in academic quality. The SATs are very effective at eliminating academically promising minority (and low-income) students who apply with strong academic records but relatively low SAT scores. Colleges that have made the SAT optional report that their applicant pools are more diverse and that there has been no drop off in academic quality.

Stereotype Vulnerability: What’s the Alternative?

Several studies show that female and minority students who are aware of racial and gender stereotypes score lower on tests such as the SAT that purport to measure academic aptitude. One study defined this extra burden borne by some test-takers as “stereotype vulnerability,” and warned that these findings “underscore the danger of relying too heavily on standardized test results in college admissions or otherwise.”The more than 740 colleges and universities that already admit substantial numbers of freshman applicants without using any test scores have shown that class rank, high school grades, and rigor of classes taken are better tools for predicting college success than any standardized test. The ACT and SAT Subject Tests are often viewed as alternatives to the SAT. While they are more closely aligned with high school curricula, they are not necessarily better tests.

Click here for 2006 SAT scores by gender, race and family income.

Read FairTest’s other SAT Fact sheets The SAT: A Faulty Instrument For Predicting College Success and The “New” SAT: A Better Test or Just a Marketing Tool?

A printable PDF version of this factsheet is available here.