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SAT = IQ?

Millions of people in the US know what the SAT is from first-hand experience. It’s one of those hoops that lots of us had to jump through in the process of passing from high school into college. But what exactly does the SAT measure? It turns out that even the Educational Testing Service, which produces the test, really doesn’t have an answer to that. But a new study by the journal Psychological Science claims to prove that the SAT is actually an IQ test.

The authors … argue that the SAT actually measures "general intelligence" — or g, in the argot of psychometricians — more effectively than some IQ tests wielded by psychologists (which often ask test-takers to do things like discern patterns in strings of numbers). The authors even provide formulas for converting SAT scores into IQ scores. [Unfortunately, the formulas don’t seem to be online.]

For a variety of reasons, the folks at ETS don’t like the connection between SAT scores and IQ, even though the original test grew out the IQ tests given to American soldiers during World War I. Over the years ETS has changed both the name of the test and their definition of it. Originally the A stood for Achievement and was later changed to Assessment. Today, ETS wants you to think that the name of the test is just SAT and that the letters don’t stand for anything.

The whole idea of the SAT being an IQ test seems a little strange. Based on what little I remember from my psych classes, IQ is supposed to be something that’s set early in life and which can’t be altered much if at all. Maybe that definition has changed in these many years. On the other hand, there is a large, very profitable business that’s grown up around coaching students to improve their score on the SAT. ETS maintains that the SAT is "uncoachable" but that’s probably because they aren’t making any money from the prep industry.

In the end, none of this really makes any difference, of course. Although the format of the SAT is changing (a writing test will be required starting next spring), taking the test will continue to be one of those traditional challenges that a majority of high school students must face in order to pass into the next phase of their lives. Just like college applications, you don’t have to understand it, just do it.

Update (7/6/04): Chris Correa, a new-to-me blogger who seems to have a background in psychology, found the mysterious formula for converting SAT score into an IQ score: IQ = (0.095 * SATMath) + (-0.003 * SATVerbal) + 50.241. Now if I could just remember what my scores were. :-)

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3 Comments

  1. Interesting. I’ll have to take a look at the source but off the top of my head, IQ tests are known to be culturally biased. I know; I’ve given many hundreds of IQ tests. My bias: IQ tests how well one takes those tests. I’m not impressed one bit by high IQ scores. Intelligence is something with mulitiple domains; IQ tests measure just one type of intelligence.

  2. That formula seems odd to me as it actually gives NEGATIVE points for Verbal scores! My SAT scores were 780/720 which using that formula gives me an IQ of 122.181. But if I leave out my verbal score I have an IQ of 124.341. When I was in high school I was told by someone who claimed to have snuck a peak into the school files that my actual IQ was 140-something.

    But all told, I agree with Shari, the tests primarily measure test-taking skills. I’ve never met a standardized test I didn’t ace. Including more than a few that I walked into without any preparation (CBEST anyone?) On the other hand, I’ve been consistently a mediocre student, my undergraduate GPA just barely hit a B, and a lot depends on how plusses and minuses are scored. In grad school, I scored a 3.5, but then there were more than a few As for classes where all I had to do was show up once in a while (and I do mean that. I got an A for one class that I skipped 70% of the class meetings and never once turned in a single written assignment).

    And now you know why I blog anonymously ;-)

  3. Tim

    That negative part seemed a little strange to me as well. But the whole idea of the SAT being equivalent to an IQ test is also strange.

    As I noted in the original post, I always remember being told that after a certain point in a child’s life, their IQ would not change. About fifteen years ago some colleagues and I decided to take the SAT again along side of our students. As you can imagine, most of us got better scores on the test than we did when we took it the first time (in my case a big jump in the verbal section). If this is truely a measure of IQ, that shouldn’t have happened.

    And anonymous or not, I’m not posting my scores! :-)

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