What Does The SAT Really Test? | Idea Channel | PBS Digital Studios

What Does The SAT Really Test? | Idea Channel | PBS Digital Studios

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THE SAT. How’s that SAT prep going? Need some SAT tips? Well, here’s one: The SAT may not actually be measuring your…anything. That’s right, your SAT scores, despite what colleges and high schools across America may like for you to believe, may not reflect anything new. There is actually substantial evidence that instead of broad aptitudes, the SATs only measure a specific set of non-quantitative, cultural values and ideas. Don’t scratch those SAT dates off your calendar yet though, because it is still important, and on this week’s episode of Idea Channel, let’s look at why.


1:30 “What Was on the First SAT?”, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/document-deep-dive-what-was-on-the-first-sat-21720496/?no-ist

5:52 “SAT reading, math scores decline”

6:04 “FairTest – Top Tier Schools which Deemphasize the ACT/SAT…”, http://conversationed.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Colleges_that_deemphasize_admission_tests.pdf

6:07 “Study: College Selectivity Doesn’t Improve Graduation Rates” http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2014/08/07/college-selectivity-doesnt-really-matter-for-graduation-rates-study-says

6:17 “Testing Your Scantron Score” ScantronCorp

6:20 “Using the Scantron”, UNR Microbiology 251 TA Channel, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=suabO1NBSSA

6:24 OpScan 4ES, ScantronCorp

7:01 “2013 FIRST Tech Challenge at i-Gate: High School Robotics Competition”


All sources can be found in this Google Doc:








Dennis Fluttershy


Rob Cronin

Samuel Crystal (MacSquizzy)



Tweet of the week

“Europe” by Roglok
“Bouncy Castle” by Roglok
“:P” by Roglok
“Squarehead” by Roglok
“Number Cruncher” by Roglok
“Little Birthday Acid” by Roglok
“Topskore” by Roglok
“Anti Vanishing Spray” by Roglok
“Tarty Prash” by Roglok
“Carry on Carillon” by Roglok
“Uptown Tennis Club” by Roglok
“Squarehead” by Roglok

“Insert Toy For Coin” by Eatme (http://eatme.pro/music/)


Written and hosted by Mike Rugnetta (@mikerugnetta)
(who also has a podcast! Reasonably Sound: http://bit.ly/1sCn0BF)

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20 Responses

  1. Erroneous Power says:

    Perfect intro, Mike!!!!

  2. Sedona Parnham says:


    Canada doesn’t have SAT’s, but there is a notion of the pressure to apply
    to post secondary education being linked with your success that has
    bothered me for a long time.

    We had 3 tiers of education in my high school initially: Academic, Applied,
    and Essential”. During my high school years, the names of these were
    changed to: University, College, and Essential. University level was the
    hardest and had the highest ranking students, college level was for people
    wanting to go to college instead of university, and was significantly less
    hard, and essential was… well the essentials.

    They drilled in to us from year one that to be in any way successful, that
    university, not college or trades, was the be-all and end-all of success,
    and taking college level courses would essentially close the doors to your
    chances of going up in the world. They made us believe that college and
    trades were somehow less valuable than university. Our parents believe it
    too and push for us to keep those options open.

    I went to university and in my fourth year, realized I wasn’t yet ready to
    go to the work force, so I applied to a college and went for two years to
    learn some more. Frankly, I loved both. The different ways I learned things
    were each extremely helpful in their own right, and both were going to help
    me become successful. What really irked me though was that college wasn’t
    any less difficult than university like school made me believe. It was just
    a different manner of teaching. To top it off, I see so many students that
    assume that the degree itself is the way to success, and not your own hard
    work and dedication to learn your trade under the guidance of these
    teachers. However, that’s what the educational system has led many to

  3. Red Yakovos says:

    Not only the SAT but the entire public school system is meant to uphold
    the capitalist system. The fact that schools are funded through property
    taxes is very telling of this. Schools in poor areas get worse staff,
    equipment. etc. Not to mention how schools teach of all the shortcomings of
    places like the USSR while ignoring the famines, disease, and death
    capitalism is responsible for. It also ignores the successes of places like
    revolutionary Catalonia and the Paris Commune. Furthermore schools train
    the proletarian children for the obedience and drudgery of the workplace.
    Children have to ask to go to the bathroom, if a teacher is teaching
    something that isn’t factual and a kid points it out the kid is silenced.
    The teachers can tell the students to do whatever they like no matter how
    illogical and the children have no choice but to follow. Even the people
    who designed our model of schooling say that its purpose was to create
    obedient plebs. If I could replace the school system, I would do so in a
    way to create a general populace where critical thinking and scientific
    literacy were common as dirt. How?

    Primary School (Grades K-5) – Along with teaching kids basic reading,
    writing, and arithmetic. Kids would also be taught to question authority
    figures and not to follow any commands that seem unreasonable. Teachers
    would have to explain to children why they instruct them to do things.
    -Since we have a classist separation of language in English (academia uses
    lots of words from latin and common words/phrases tend to be more Germanic
    in origin.) children will be taught Latin and possibly Greek in elementary
    school. This will make teaching science and math easier in Secondary school
    since less time will be spent mulling over vocabulary.

    Secondary School (6-12)
    -Middle and High school are combined in order to foster communication
    between teachers. Much less time will have to be spent on reviewing things
    from middle school.
    -Everyone will have to take a rhetoric and reasoning class. Logical
    fallacies will be taught as a critical part of the curriculum.
    -An anti-superstition class would also be required. It would spend time
    debunking pseudoscience and teaching the kids how to debunk pseudoscience
    -Classes would be more dialogue oriented, with free and open discussion
    -No grades or standardized tests would be taken, instead there would be
    periodic oral exams that kids could either pass or fail. Instead of a GPA a
    teacher would leave notes on a student’s performance. In order for this to
    be practical classes would have to hold no more than 20 students to a room.
    -Science, Math, and Humanities classes would have to show the real life
    consequences of what is taught. As it stands students are alienated from
    their teachings because to them it’s just words on a page.
    -Replace our current “great man” method of teaching history with a more
    Marxist perspective. Teach history as the story of human beings, and their
    struggles, movements, migrations, and class conflicts. Teach about how
    colonialism and conquests and wars effected both the people who were
    colonizing and conquering and the conquered. Also the students should read
    a lot of primary sources and first hand accounts. Show history as a river
    rather than a series of puddles.
    -Focus more on the scientific method than scientific findings.

    Those are just some ways I would suggest changing schools. They would be
    more suited to a socialist (by that I mean, a society where the workers
    democratically control the means of production and the state. Not a social
    democracy like Sweden) society than the one we have now, but hey, a guy can
    dream can’t he?

  4. Kasopea says:

    Exams in Britain are much more complicated than SAT and oh boy, are they
    fun! In order to get to the university we have ESSAY exams, in which we
    have about 2h per exam to write 3-4 short essays that answer a given
    question. I would think they are better at measuring knowledge and ability,
    because you are not just expected to tick an answer for a multi-choice
    question, but you have to be able to adapt the knowledge and theories to
    answer a question as well as use existing research to build your argument
    and back it up with evidence. They are extremely stressful and demanding
    though, in some exams, you end up writing 6-8 full pages in 2h, the time
    pressure is a killer and the amount of knowledge that you need to memorise
    is way more challenging than SAT. I am in university now and I take simple
    multiple-choice question exams like SAT on regular basis to test how well
    we have grasped a topic and they are nice and easy in comparison.

  5. BlankPicketSign says:

    I feel human “intelligence” simply cannot be quantified. Only “Education”.

    I live in the Southern United States, and where I live there are many
    people who don’t have good Educational Opportunities or Financial
    Resources. YET Many those same people are wickedly intelligent, with
    problem solving skills and complex vocations that far exceed my own
    abilities despite my higher educational opportunities.

    And even with my opportunities I have Learning Disabilities that disqualify
    me from taking the SAT because “I would fail it due to a genetic
    disability”. Yet I am considered one of the most intelligent people in my
    family, social group, and even in my school. I have shortcomings and
    dysfunctional cognitive abilities, but I have other abilities that far
    surpass my peers.

    Instead of looking at “Intelligence” as some D&D Stat that the SAT tries
    (and fails) to assume, I think there are different “flavors of
    intelligence”; An ever changing, complex gradient of mental abilities.

    Thank’s for reading Mike <3

  6. Ryan Gatts says:

    I agree with your larger points here (that the SAT tests a version of
    intelligence biased by the backgrounds and values of the test writers and
    effectively serves to preserve the academic and societal status quo), but I
    take issue with the idea that by *avoiding* standardization rather than
    fixing it, we would make a more just world.

    For the record, I did very well on the SAT and I’m exactly the type of
    person who is *supposed* to do well on it. I’m a white, upper middle class,

    Standardization is vital to the very idea of assessment because without
    standardization, students are subject to the whims and ideals of their
    teacher and school. Does your teacher have an opinion about your race? What
    about your gender or sexuality? Are they happy being a teacher? Have they
    known you a long time? Do they like you? Do they like your parents? Without
    concrete, standardized assessments, these biases and regional cultural
    differences can even more easily push and pull testing performance.

    I see all of the data you’ve shared as a sign that we need a massive
    overhaul of our tests, who makes them, and what they are meant to measure.
    They could be improved by a more diverse set of questions would help (made
    by a more diverse set of question writers), another opt-in version of the
    test that is not time-limited, but answer-limited to better measure
    students who have timer-exacerbated testing anxiety, geographically and
    culturally diverse essay evaluators, etc. But I don’t think removing
    standardization would help the problem at all.

  7. GuyWithAnAmazingHat says:

    Standardised testing will be abolished when we develop the technology to
    download information digitally into our brains, like in the Matrix.

    All you need to do to learn anything is to pay and download, or pirate that
    education and download it free.

    When you are applying for a job, you just need to sign a contract and they
    will upload all the job training into your brain.

  8. me you says:

    have any of you ever got an opinion on one of those test

  9. CJ White says:

    Nice The Stanly Parable background at the start there. ; ) [Also, “A” is
    my answer for your last question.]

  10. KnowledgePlaylists says:

    What Does The SAT Really Test? | PBS Idea Channel #RecentUploads Mike
    Rugnetta PBS Digital Studios Kornhaber Brown |

  11. Raufoon Shafiq Bhuiyan says:

    While I see my teachers see potential in students and I see my students
    work, we use a completely different formula to judge a good student. As
    teachers, we see with our own eyes the hard work, the sincerity a student
    puts in, and NOT the grades. We see grades as a marker for “improvement”
    and not “abilities”.

    My Idea is we need a system that can see “hard work” and “sincerity” first
    and then “intellect”. I’ve been thinking about it. And it might start with
    an “impossible task” – not kidding. When people are given impossible things
    to do, you can start judging them properly. Here, there is no standardized
    test, when there’s no way to score by simple memorization, only hard work
    scores. :)

  12. Sam Auciello says:

    The entire idea of testing is inherently classist. Reward the people who
    are “smart” by by giving them opportunities to become smarter. There is a
    related idea in education of an assessment which looks like a test but
    actually serves to measure where a student or group of students is at in
    their understanding of a subject so that the teacher knows where to start.
    Testing to determine what the student needs seems reasonable to me.
    Testing to determine what the student deserves is inherently disgusting. I
    suppose it comes down to what the goal of education is. Is it about
    helping students learn, or is it about molding society to our will.

  13. jheaton says:

    Tech companies have been trying for years to solve this problem as they
    realized that grades did not translate into talent or good employees. (I
    can’t remember a time I was asked about college, let alone what grades I
    got.) Their focus has instead been looking for desire to do and the ability
    to quench that desire though good use of time and resources. Essentially
    asking, do you really want to do the job you’re applying for and do you
    have the drive to go out and find answers to how to do it on your own?

    Children are still in the crucible when they receive these tests. Just as
    some grow three more inches in college, others bloom late in what it is
    they want to be and the desire that is necessary to make that happen. These
    tests ask, “Can we figure out how far you can go while you’re still young?”
    But a better question might be, “How can we find you something to get good
    at so that society might benefit and you might be happy?” If we aim to
    answer that question, a test probably isn’t the way to do it. Instead, we
    should look at the model of education and how successful it is at
    delivering the aforementioned results (say, by correlating the education of
    kids to their 30, 40, 50 year old selves) instead of trying to use testing
    as a crystal ball.

  14. Loveless Affection says:

    For real though, I had a 1480 on the SAT and a 20 on the ACT. In my
    opinion, those are bad scores considering they are below the average of the
    college I’m enrolled in. I had a 3.7 GPA in high school and a 3.69 my first
    semester of college. Yet, people still tell me it tests how well I would do
    in my first year.

  15. Ashley Johnson says:

    I am so glad that you mentioned the test’s basis in eugenics.

  16. Ysmeril says:

    The same thing goes for GPU/CPU benchmarking. To know if a graphic card is
    good, run some games, mesure the fps and compare it to others. It’s not
    100% accurate, because some games may be optimised for certain GC and run
    poorly on others. But even by knowing precisely their caracteristics only
    the test phase can prove their performance. So i don’t think that tests are
    outdated and human judgement is in any way more valuable. We can expect
    tests to become better, but humans won’t.

  17. Lia Hansen says:



  18. Kittystar says:

    How fascinating! Just like you I pretty much never played with toys the way
    they were shown in commercials, and I kind of assumed that no one else did
    either. For the longest time I thought that the toy manufacturers and
    advertisers just didn’t understand children and were always getting their
    toy designs wrong. But it turns out that maybe I was just really weird with
    how I liked to play. And now it suddenly makes sense why only a very select
    few actually wanted to keep playing the games that came out of my
    imagination. Like, literally two other people! Hahaha! :)

  19. Cthulhu Plays says:

    BP stands for British Petroleum.

  20. NimbleBlood says:

    KFC does stand for something .-.