The SAT exam has gone through many iterations, each, some say, fixing some problems and creating others. Created in the 1920s, the original test featured 315 questions, a 97-minute time limit, and no distinct math and English sections. Since then, scoring rubrics have been overhauled, question styles have been adapted, calculators became permitted, and an essay section was added, among other changes. Last spring, The College Board President, David Coleman, announced that a new version of the SAT exam would be launched in 2016. After the first cycle of these new exams this year, and amid speculations about its difficulty, it appears that scores overall have improved significantly.
A major function of the test, which is used as a benchmark for determining college admission, is the stringency in how it’s administered: It’s hours long, with structured breaks, and a strict no-cellphone policy. Robert Rorison, a retired history teacher and department head at Abington Senior High School in Pennsylvania, administered the test to students for 53 years. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Rorison about why the test is still relevant, how his personal ethics influenced the way he administered the SAT, and how he’s seen the test change over several decades since he took it as a high-school student in 1949. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Adrienne Green: What inspired you to become an SAT proctor?
Robert Rorison: I was an American-history teacher at Abington Senior High School, and the principal of the school approached a lot of the new members of the faculty and said that they needed help administering the SAT. My wife and I had just had our second child and we thought a few extra bucks would be helpful. [The salary] was much smaller [than my teaching salary], just enough to take your wife out to dinner. I enjoyed it, and they kept asking me to do it, so I did for 53 years.
Green: What was the average procedure for administering the SAT?
Rorison: In the last couple of years, we generally had about 300 kids per exam, and we did it seven times a year. The kids waited in the lobby of the school, and they were put in the auditorium until 8 a.m. We had quite a few kids and not all of them were Abington students; they were from surrounding school districts as well. Then, they were sent to the various classrooms and you checked their ID as they came in, and then you would proceed to go over the instructions for the test. The test changed over the years, particularly the addition of the essay portion. The students came in very apprehensive and nervous. The first break, you could tell they were uptight—a lot of trips to the boy’s and girl’s room. This was a very important thing for them and they were as tightly wound as could be, and I would try to get them to relax a little bit by offering a couple of kind words.
Green: How did the addition of the essay portion change the student’s reaction to the test?
Rorison: The first time they took the essay portion there were looks of shock. As the years moved on, they seemed to get used to it. Most kids take the SAT twice: once in the later part of their junior year, and again in the beginning of their senior year. You can almost always see the difference between the two; they're a little more relaxed. They know what's coming kind of approach the second time they take it.
Green: Certain colleges and universities no longer require SAT scores for admission. How do you feel about that, and have you seen that relieve some anxiety from students?
Rorison: I saw no difference in their approach. They wanted to do well. My job was to give an honest administration of the exam, and I observed them all during the test.
Rorison: Yes. I feel very keenly on that. I feel if you're taking an exam to enter a particular college, for you and for the college, they want an honest opinion of you. If you want to honestly demonstrate your skills, your abilities, that's fine. I'll go along with the honest way of doing it. There will be no cheating. No looking at somebody else's anything. This is the way I feel. I felt that way as a teacher when giving ordinary classroom tests.
Nowadays, the phones are an issue. The phone may not ring, and students may not touch them during the test, during the break, or at any point. Boys often wore sweatshirts with hoods, and I made sure their hoods were down. I wanted to know where the students were looking. The main thing I was about was honesty.
Green: Has anyone in your classroom attempted to cheat?
Rorison: I've had kids whose eyes start to wander and I would walk down the aisle. I wouldn’t say too much, but I would stand right next to them so they knew I was watching them. I've never had to ask someone to leave the test. If a student used a passport for identification, for example, I wondered how well that they understood the directions. Two or three years ago, a Russian student was taking the test, and his phone rang. I immediately went over, and I wasn't quite sure he understood the instructions. If the phone had rung twice, he would have been out of there.
Green: What would you say is the most challenging part about overseeing the SAT?
Rorison: Probably just keeping an eye on the kids. [All you can do is] read the instructions slowly, and keep an eye on them. You want to be sure they understand the directions.
Green: What motivated you to do this job on top of your position as a teacher other than the extra pay?
Rorison: I always liked working with the kids and teaching. I saw the SAT as part of the basic process of getting into college. I took the SAT in 1949—ancient history. Then I administered it for 53 years. My children took the SAT to go to college. My grandchildren took the SAT to go to college. It's, to me, the standard entry point to enter the university.
Green: What do you say about efforts to do away with it?
Rorison: I would raise questions about that. I think the colleges look at grades, but depending on the high school a student went to, the grades don't necessarily have equal meaning. One of my students ended up as an admissions officer at a college in Pennsylvania, and he told me that they have various opinions of various high schools. A B grade in one school is not necessarily the same as a B or an A at another. I think the test, with its uniformity, at least tells the college how a student knows English, math, etc.
Green: What if students are poor test takers?
Rorison: You can't go through college and constantly be a poor test taker. You've got to, at some point, be adequate. You're going to take tests for four more years, in various subjects. You're going to take tests to enter various professions, so it's part of life at that level.
Green: You said that you took the SAT yourself in 1949. Describe your SAT experience.
Rorison: That is quite a while ago. The test was basically English and math; we did not do an essay back in those years. I was admitted to several colleges, and I went on to get my bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees from Temple University in Philadelphia. When I took the test, I think I was probably anxious like everybody else. I wasn't quite sure what it was all about, and I only took it once. Obviously, in 1949, 1950, the percentage of kids graduating from high school who went to college was a lot smaller than it is today. Just working at Abington over the years, I've seen the percentage of Abington graduates go to college rise.
Green: How is your work tied into your identity?
Rorison: My career was in education and I thoroughly enjoyed it. In retirement, I still gave the SAT for 18 years. I enjoyed very much going in and having contact with the kids. That was really the core of my professional life. Nowadays, my professional life is shifting to my own grandchildren, two of whom are in college and one of whom is going this coming fall. I'm very proud of some of my former students. I watch one of them on television regularly, and Ash Carter is the Secretary of Defense. I taught him government, and he is now in the government of the United States. It's nice to see how some of your former students turn out.
Green: The SATs are generally given on Saturday mornings. Now that you're not administering the tests anymore, what do you do with your Saturdays?
Rorison: At 84 years old, I've got a few medical issues that are tangling me up, so I gave up the SAT. If I could have gone on, I would have gone on. But now, all of my grandchildren are swimmers. The oldest one is captain of the Penn State University swim team. I like to go swim meets, and they’re on Saturdays. My grandchildren now take the place of everybody else's children.
This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a biology teacher, an improv teacher, and a librarian.