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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 09/17/2010

How the ACT caught up with the SAT

By Valerie Strauss

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.


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By Valerie Strauss  | 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  
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Interesting history. However, the idea that high school grades predict college grades (or completion) better than SAT or ACT has one caveat: it holds true only if you segment the students according to which college or university they are actually attending. Students with 4.0 averages but ACT's below 20 are prepared to succeed at a different group of universities/colleges than those with a grade point average of 4.0 and ACT's in the 30's.

Posted by: jane100000 | September 17, 2010 8:26 AM | Report abuse

I've supported Fair Test in the past even though I generally disagree with their stance. The organization claims to be about "fair tests" but one would be hard pressed to discover any test on their website that they endorse.
The headline in this opinion by Mr. Schaeffer is very misleading. He is hardly interested in analyzing why the ACT has "caught" the SAT but is using this space as a platform to bash the use of both college admissions tests. Mr. Schaeffer is also extremely selective in his use of data. In fact both the ACT and SAT are statistically nearly as good as HSGPA in predicting FYCGPA and either test when combined with HSGPA does a better job predicting FYCGPA than either the tests or HSGPA alone.
Also Mr. Schaeffer rolls out the old shibboleth that the tests are biased against minorities. In fact, the data is quite clear that the SAT actually overpredicts performance for African-American students.
Finally, Valerie, it is incumbent upon you, since you are yourself a critic of standardized tests, to be a little more forthcoming in making known Mr. Schaeffer's biases before uncritically unleashing him upon the public.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | September 17, 2010 8:54 AM | Report abuse

The FT list of schools that have suppposedly dropped test requirements is a fraud. Not only does it include such schools as culinary institutes, seminaries and rabinical academies, interior design, photography and art schools, it fails to mention that just about all of the schools on the FT list demand tests for out of state applicants, those seeking scholarships and other students.

Furthermore, many of the schools on the list require applicants to take the school's own admissions test. The list is fraudulent and any reporter who covers or promotes it as anything but fraudulent is not doing their due dilligence and in the process, does a tremendous disservice to students and families.

It's time for FT to be honest about its work instead of deliberately deceiving students and reporters who should know better.

I've written a few in-depth articles on the deception surrounding FT. See below for links:

Posted by: junksciencemom | September 17, 2010 1:43 PM | Report abuse

The ACT and the SAT are both very important tests that every college intently analyzes. To maximize your chances in being accepted to a top 50 school, you should definitely work to improve your SAT or ACT scores.

For almost ten years now, C2 Education has been helping students across the country raise their GPAs and master the SAT through individualized instruction, and when it comes to individualized test preparation programs, C2 is in fact the nationwide leader in providing such services.

C2’s highly researched learning system is the first to fully assesses a both a student’s academic needs and his or her relative mastery of study skills. With this information, C2’s instructors are able to tailor a different curriculum to each individual student’s needs. At C2 we instruct our students until they have mastered the materials. In this way, each and every student is guaranteed to experience results.

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Posted by: Eplee87 | September 20, 2010 4:23 PM | Report abuse

Bob Schaeffer is basically a con man. How do you compare students with teachers that only give out a couple of As to ones with teachers where anyone that does the homework gets an A?

What useless garbage. Ms. Strauss loves anything that means we can pretend everyone's doing fine, social promotion, just keep increasing the money for the schools.

Posted by: staticvars | September 22, 2010 10:41 PM | Report abuse

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