When it comes time for you to pick a standardized test to submit to colleges, you have two choices: the SAT and the ACT. And while there is always a debate about which test is “better” for you to take, no one really talks about the history of these tests and how revolutionary their existence is. Prior to 1900, there was no standardized testing. You got into college, because your high school was connected to it and because you got good grades. So what does ACT stand for and why are two different standardized tests necessary?

What Does ACT Stand For?

Well, that depends on when in its history you ask that question. Like its counterpart, the SAT, the meaning behind its name has changed over the years. In order to understand what ACT does actually stand for, we need to take a look at its history.

The test itself was revolutionary, just like the SAT was when it was first introduced, because college entrance exams were a very recent thing. Prior to the SAT, you got into college, because you went to an elite high school with connections to an elite university. There really wasn’t an opportunity for everyone to have access to a college education, because of those lack of connections and because no standardized education existed. The College Board, the force behind the SAT, changed that and created the SAT so colleges could evaluate more students.

The ACT exists, because not everyone was happy with the SAT. When the SAT was created, it was based on two things:

  1. The IQ test. Carl Brigham, the man responsible for creating the SAT, basically altered the IQ tests being used by the Army to pick its officer candidates. The newly created College Board tapped him in the mid-1920s to create a test that colleges could use to determine which students to admit.
  2. Intelligence as an aptitude. Because of its IQ test roots, the SAT fed into the myth that intelligence was more like a talent you were born with. Some people didn’t have it, others had more of it, but it was always present. It was also widely accepted at the time that intelligence was an indicator of success. So, if you did well on the SAT, you were intelligent, and destined for success.

As you can imagine, this caused a bit of controversy! But the SAT remained the only college entrance exam until 1959, when a professor from the University of Iowa decided it was time to make a different test for students who were interested in going to college. When E.F. Lindquist created the ACT, he did so for the following reasons:

  1. The masses. The SAT was really only used by Ivy League colleges and other exclusive schools in the Northeastern part of the United States. Public universities everywhere else? Not so much. There needed to be an exam they could use.
  2. Do more. Lindquist wanted to make a test that did more than tell colleges if they should let you in. He wanted a test that also told them your placement within each subject as well.
  3. Achievement vs Aptitude. Lindquist wanted his test to measure how prepared you were for college, he wanted the ACT to measure your achievements rather than the SAT’s aptitude measurement.

The ACT was based on the Iowa Tests of Educational Development, or the ITED. The goal of these tests was to understand your current skill level in a particular area, how much you had improved since the last time you were tested, and how much you could improve with additional education. I know this sounds like common sense now, but at the time, it was really progressive even though the content is very similar to each other. It’s the approach that matters.

At first, the ACT was only available in the Midwest and cost about $23 in today’s market to take. This was much more affordable than the nearly $50 in today’s money you needed to pay for the SAT! Unlike the SAT, who published a booklet saying test prep companies didn’t really improve your score, the ACT published a student preparation handbook in 1985 with a practice test for students to use.

In a way, the answer to what does ACT stand for is “revolutionary,” but the acronym just means American College Test. But as of 1996, ACT isn’t an acronym anymore. Similar to AT&T, KFC, and SAT, its name is the three letters you see. It’s just ACT. Although its popularity was initially confined to just the Midwest, the ACT became a valid admissions test for all colleges and universities in the US as recently as 2007. By 2010, more students were taking the ACT than the SAT and college consultants emerged to guide students through the preparation process.

The need for college entrance exams emerged in the 1800s and for a time, the SAT was your only option as a student. But in 1959, the American College Test, or ACT, emerged as a testing alternative. Nearly 30 years later, the ACT has surpassed the SAT in terms of popularity among students and is recognized by almost every college and four year university. Even though the ACT was created as a response to the SAT, it stands on its own as a standardized testing option for college-bound students everywhere.

What are your thoughts on the ACT? Did anything about its origins surprise you? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think!