How the ACT caught up with the SAT
This post was written by Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, known as FairTest. FairTest is a non-profit organization that is dedicated to ending what it says are misuses and flaws in standardized testing.
By Bob Schaeffer
For more than 80 years, the SAT has been the nation’s dominant, standardized college admissions exam. This year – for the first time – as many students in the high school class of 2010 sat for the rival ACT as took the SAT.
Twenty years ago, the SAT was the common rite of passage for students from across the nation competing for seats at the most competitive institutions. The ACT was largely confined to the South, Midwest, Southwest and Mountain states, where it was often used for admission to public universities. Fewer than 75% as many students took the ACT as the SAT.
Two decades later almost exactly the same number of students – slightly more than 1.5 million in the 2010 high school graduating class-- took each test.
How did the testing industry’s “Avis” overtake the long-time “Hertz” of the field?
It’s not that the ACT is a “better” test than the SAT. Neither exam does a particularly good job at forecasting first-year college grades, test-makers’ sole scientific claim for their product. Both ACT and the College Board, the SAT’s sponsor, admit that high school grades are stronger predictors of college academic performance.
The book Crossing the Finish Line, published last year, analyzed reams of data to conclude that applicants’ classroom records are between 3 and 10 times better than exam scores in assessing likelihood to graduate from college. Both tests also have problems with biases against minority groups, older students and women. Both are highly susceptible to coaching which distorts scores.
But the ACT is a “different” test, one that has been marketed more strategically in recent years.
At least three factors led to ACT catching up with the SAT as the nation’s most administered pre-college test:
The ACT is more consumer-friendly. ACT has always empowered students to select which test results were sent to each school’s admissions office, while the SAT did not implement “score choice” until this year. The ACT does not deduct points for incorrect answers, unlike the SAT’s “guessing penalty,” which creates a psychological barrier for some students.
At the same time the ACT’s content, including subjects such as science, which is not covered on the SAT, is more similar to the classroom work students have mastered.
Perhaps most importantly, the ACT’s writing section is optional, allowing students who are applying to the many schools which don’t require “writing” scores to avoid the extra time and cost of the mandatory SAT section.
The “new” SAT released in 2005 was a flop. Responding to long-standing criticisms about the test, highlighted by then-University of California President Richard Atkinson, the College Board promised to overhaul the SAT. But the “new” version turned out to be neither a more accurate nor a fairer admissions tool, according to the test-maker's own research.
In reaction to the failure to deliver real change, more than six dozen colleges and universities have decided to drop their admissions exam requirements in the past five years boosting the list of test-optional colleges to nearly 850. Moreover, all colleges, which still require tests, accept the ACT as an alternative to the SAT.
ACT signed up entire states to administer their test to all students. By claiming that increased admissions test-taking would increase college application rates, ACT shrewdly convinced education leaders in Illinois, Colorado, Kentucky, Michigan, Tennessee and Wyoming to require all students to take their test. The College Board has only been able to sign up Maine to give the SAT to all students.
The evolution of the ACT into a co-equal to the SAT gives test-takers a choice of competing college admissions exams. But, test-optional admission policies remain an even better alternative.
Follow my blog every day by bookmarking washingtonpost.com/answersheet. And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our Higher Education page at washingtonpost.com/higher-ed Bookmark it!
| September 17, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories: Guest Bloggers, SAT and ACT, Standardized Tests | Tags: act, college admissions, crossing the finish line, fairtest, sat, sat act, sat or act, sat vs. act, standardized tests, test-optional colleges, test-optional schools, writing section act, writing section sat
Save & Share: Previous: While we wait for ‘Superman,’ let's focus on teaching
Next: Schools would be great if it weren't for the kids
Posted by: jane100000 | September 17, 2010 8:26 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | September 17, 2010 8:54 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: junksciencemom | September 17, 2010 1:43 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Eplee87 | September 20, 2010 4:23 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: staticvars | September 22, 2010 10:41 PM | Report abuse
The comments to this entry are closed.