The SAT and the ACT: Behind the Acronyms

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By now you probably know all about the SAT: its scoring system, its subjects, which colleges require it, and that it comes in two parts. But do you know the most basic piece of information: what the acronym SAT stands for?

Here’s a hint: the “S” doesn’t stand for “school,” “scholastic,” “scholar,” or anything along those lines. And, perhaps even more surprisingly, the “T” doesn’t stand for “test.” That makes it harder, right? Take a minute to puzzle over that one and come up with a theory while we discuss the ACT.

As of 2012, the ACT is more popular than the SAT. You’ve doubtless heard plenty about it as well, and debated questions like whether to take it instead of the SAT, or whether to take the SAT Subject Tests even though the ACT is a better fit for your main test. But, again, has it occurred to you to wonder about the acronym?

To balance things out, here are two hints for the ACT as well. The “A” doesn’t stand for “academic” or “American,” and the “T” doesn’t stand for “test” in this one either.

It’s puzzling, isn’t it? Read on to discover the history of these acronyms, which is necessary to understanding their current meaning. (You’ll also learn that asking you to guess what the acronyms stand for, even with those big hints, was a bit of a trick question.)


The SAT is far older than the ACT, and has the history to go with it. The College Entrance Examination Board (now the College Board) tested and developed it for many years, then, in 1926, released the Scholastic Aptitude Test. See where this is going? (“But you said the “S” wasn’t for “Scholastic” and the “T” wasn’t for “test,” you may be protesting. They aren’t. You’ll see.)

There was a problem with this name. According to Merriam-Webster, “aptitude” means “a natural ability to do something or to learn something.” Clearly a test like the SAT doesn’t measure aptitude, because so much of it depends on what you’ve had the opportunity (and motivation) to learn rather than any sort of natural ability.

In 1993, the Scholastic Aptitude Test (which was by then colloquially known as the SAT) underwent two significant changes.

● It became a term for a group of tests: the SAT I: Reasoning Test and the SAT II: Subject Tests

● The acronym shifted to stand for Scholastic Achievement Tests

This name change served several purposes. It got rid of the troublesome term “aptitude,” allowed the name to cover multiple tests instead of just one, and maintained the “SAT” acronym. Even so, the acronym still stands for two things you learned it didn’t mean at the beginning of this post.

Ready to hear the answer?

A 1997 article in the New York Times quotes Diane Ravitch, a scholar from New York University, as poking fun at the name of the test: “... calling it the Scholastic Assessment Test is like calling it the Scholastic Test Test, because that’s what an assessment is.”

It’s easy to imagine the people at the College Board throwing their hands up in defeat. They had just changed the name from “Aptitude” four years earlier, and already “Assessment” had become a problem too.

In the same article, we learn how they solved this problem once and for all: “SAT is not an initialism; it does not stand for anything,’’ the College Board declared. That’s backed up by College Board spokesman Scott Jeffe, who in the same article is reported to have said, “The SAT has become the trademark; it doesn’t stand for anything.”

Yes, it was a trick question. Ever since 1997, “SAT” hasn’t stood for anything at all.


Maybe you can see where this is going. Let’s skip the suspense this time, and dive straight into the (shorter) story.

The ACT was first administered in 1959 by the American College Testing Program, as a response to (and intended improvement upon) the SAT. At that point, the acronym stood for American College Test ― as you likely guessed from the name of the program administering it.

This changed in 1996. At that point, the SAT had already changed its name from the Scholastic Aptitude Test to the Scholastic Achievement Test, but hadn’t yet become only the SAT.

Perhaps in response to seeing what the Scholastic Aptitude/Achievement Test was suffering through due to naming problems, or perhaps ― as it claims ― because it was no longer only a testing company, the American College Testing Program, Inc. renamed itself to simply ACT, Inc. Since then, the ACT has simply been the ACT, with the letters being as meaningless as those of the SAT.