What Do The A, C, And T Of The ACT Test Mean?

Into the heat and happy languor of summer, a chilly reminder of grades and scores is smacking students. Right now, people who took the ACT national exam in June are learning their scores. This may explain why the teens around you seem more ecstatic, despondent, or confused than usual.

You probably know how it works: kids take the ACT or the SAT, learn their scores, then send the results to schools that will decide the fate of America’s youth.

As for the trick question, since 1996, the ACT has been short for nothing. The test was developed in the 1950s as a rival to the SAT and was originally short for “American College Testing.” According to the ACT Web site, the name change is meant to reflect “ACT’s diverse and evolving roles.” It’s no longer a strictly American company, it no longer deals with college test prep exclusively, and it no longer only does tests . . . the company also deals with test preparation and learning.

An abbreviation that is pronounced using the sounds of the letters (if ACT was pronounced as “to act in a play”) rather than their names is called an initialism. An example besides ACT is NATO. The closest term for an abbreviation that ceases to stand for anything besides itself is a pseudo-acronym.

What about SAT? Here’s an even stranger story. The acronym started out in 1901 as the Scholastic Aptitude Test. In the 1990s, the general SAT was named the SAT I: Reasoning Test and the acronym was transformed into a pseudo-acronym. Exams organized by subject were named the SAT II: Subject Tests. One reason for dropping the meaning of the acronym was criticism that the SAT didn’t actually measure scholastic aptitude. Shortly thereafter, the main test was renamed the SAT Reasoning Test and the Roman numerals were dropped. (Maybe the long names were too reminiscent of the “Star Wars” film titles, “SAT, Episode II: The Antonyms Strike Back.”)

For extra-credit, answer the following question in essay form in the comments below. What does it mean when the names of  tests designed to measure critical faculties require labyrinthine explanations to understand? Bonus points for each Word of the Day you include.

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