Reclaiming Intellectual Freedom with a New Alternative to the SAT

Jeremy Tate

Jeremy Tate is the founder and president of the Classic Learning Test.


The SAT used to test aptitude—“a natural ability” or “capacity for learning” that indicates general ability to take advantage of higher education. These last few decades it’s been changed toward measuring achievement—mastery of subject content that students have been taught. It’s now more like the ACT, which “is and always has been a curriculum-based achievement test, measuring what a student has learned in school,” according to the ACT website. David Coleman, CEO of the College Board, announced at the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC) conference in Columbus, Ohio in September 2016 that “the New SAT has removed every last trace of an aptitude assessment from the SAT.”[1]

This change has been justified on the grounds of fairness, since any test which does not produce results precisely in lockstep with America’s demographic divisions by race and sex is ipso facto “unfair.” This is verdict-first-and-evidence-later argumentation—but even if true, it has imposed a far more unfair test than the one it replaces—and one that significantly restricts America’s curricular variety and intellectual freedom. It has also imposed a far worse test, since the College Board’s solution to “unfairness” is to create a test so simple that everyone can pass it.

The point of an aptitude test, and thus of the SAT as originally conceived, was partly that it sought out intrinsic ability rather than learning—and thus was intended to be radically democratic, rather than reinforcing the advantages of rich students from elite schools. Yet it was also partly intended to acknowledge and defer to America’s curricular variety. Because American students went to so many different sorts of schools, they had no curriculum in common. Any sort of achievement test would unfairly advantage whatever curriculum it tested for, and disadvantage students who studied a different curriculum. This would not only be directly unfair to these disadvantaged students but also a disadvantage to America as a whole, which benefitted from the intellectual looseness, flexibility, diversity, and freedom that resulted from having students educated in varying fashions. What an aptitude test lost by sacrificing content knowledge it gained from the fairness and utility of testing for intrinsic ability and of deferring to America’s curricular variety.

The SAT has now abandoned both of these virtues. It no longer tries to test for intrinsic ability—and indeed, by seeking a false fairness of demographic equity, it scarcely tests for ability at all. By shifting to an achievement model, and basing its content model on the public schools, it has abandoned the fairness of deference to America’s curricular variety. All students have to study the public school curriculum if they wish to do well on the SAT—and because college entrance depends so heavily on the SAT (and the similarly achievement-oriented ACT), this shift effectively smuggles a homogenous national curriculum into America via the wedge of standardized testing. The SAT now is only fair to the extent that it has coerced every American family into submitting to a standard education model—and one which enshrines mediocrity and no longer dares to test for individual excellence.

Because the SAT has abdicated its traditional role of providing fair educational assessment, in a vain pursuit of a false fairness, there is a place available for better tests to compete with it. I have founded the Classic Learning Test (CLT), a new college entrance exam that more than 30 colleges have adopted in its first year, with the intention of filling the vacuum left by the SAT and ACT. The CLT partly tests for aptitude: it uses a format of word analogies, reading comprehension, and so on, which are the established materials for an aptitude test, and it is keyed to a level of rigor that democratically and fairly tests for individual excellence. But it also tests for content—in this case, the content taught in classical schools and home schools that is absent both from our public schools and from rival assessment exams. The CLT assesses the subjects taught to many of the brightest high school students in America—arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy to begin with, and then ethics, philosophy, theology, rhetoric, and logic. The CLT is both fair and liberating to a homeschool family that teaches Aristotelian logic and its development in Thomistic philosophy, or to a private school that dives into a deep study of Dante’s Divine Comedy. These schools, these parents, and these millions of students will be assessed rigorously for aptitude and content that fits their preferred education—and not forced to study to the mediocre standard of the public schools.

The Classic Learning Test isn’t meant for every family in America. I partly founded the CLT so as to inspire other people to do what I’ve done, and create assessment companies of their own. There ought to be a rigorous test of natural aptitude along the lines of what the SAT used to provide; there should be an equally rigorous achievement test for a public school curriculum along the lines of an ACT assessment; and there should be half a dozen other assessment tests like the CLT, each with their own content specialization. There are millions of American students studying in dozens of different ways, and it’s all to the good that they aren’t on the same page every day. We’re a rich country of more than 300 million people—we can afford to have more than just one sort of test. And if American students weren’t all forced to take one test in the first place, that would be the fairest result of all for America.

But of course I did found the CLT because I do think it tests for what is the best education in America—founded on the best works of the past, and with the cultivation of virtue as its most basic purpose. I wish well for American education and American students in general—but I especially hope that parents and schools who share my traditional understanding of education may find a good friend in the Classic Learning Test. I trust it is a fair test, but I am sure that it is a good test for the best form of education in the world.


[1] David Coleman, “A Conversation with David Coleman” (Educational breakout session, National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) conference,  Columbus, Ohio, September 22, 2016).


Image Credit: Public Domain.

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