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The Battle of the Tests: Why the ACT has overtaken the SAT

There’s only room for one at the top, and in the land of college admissions, the ACT now claims the throne as the most popular test in the nation. Trends show that the ACT is about to blow things wide open and leave the College Board in the dust. How did this happen? How did the College Board, the de facto architect of the national testing movement, lose its way and its testing crown to some scrappy upstart from Iowa?

The College Board has experienced a few hiccups over the last decade: a handful of cheating scandals, a batch of misgraded tests, and the forced SAT overhaul in 2005 necessitated by Richard Atkins’ threat to drop the SAT as a requirement for U. California applicants. Even on its best behavior, the SAT manages to attract greater scrutiny and more frequent criticism from politicians, reporters, and academic researchers who typically overlook the more inconspicuous ACT. As a graduate student, I saw firsthand how educational researchers were tough on the SAT, but generally ignored the ACT. Between 1960 and 2004, academic researchers published more than three times as many peer-reviewed articles focusing on the SAT as on the ACT. Between 2005 and 2011, the SAT/ACT publication ratio was 2 to 1; in 2012, the ratio dropped to 1.3 to 1. Only now, with its newfound popularity, is the ACT open to the critical scrutiny once reserved for the SAT.

For decades, while the SAT was being picked apart in the press and America’s academic journals, the ACT hummed quietly along. Relatively unencumbered by lawsuits and negative PR, ACT Inc., was able to focus on its marketing efforts and reposition itself in such a way to appeal to more and more schools, educators, politicians, counselors, students and tutors alike.

The ACT creep has been slow but steady. When I applied to college in 1993, nobody in Atlanta was talking about the ACT. We knew Peachtree, sweet tea, and the SAT, but the ACT wasn’t part of the conversation. When I opened Applerouth Tutoring in 2001, the ACT was still only a whisper. It wasn’t until 2004 that we had our first request for ACT prep. Fast forward to 2012, when 35% of our students prepped for the ACT, even though the majority live in established “SAT” states (GA, VA, MD, NY),. I anticipate our ACT numbers will surpass our SAT numbers in every one of our major markets within a few years.

What is driving this incredible growth in the ACT? There are several reasons. Let’s start at the beginning: the divergent origins of the two tests.

The root of the problem: the SAT’s lingering focus on aptitude

With its roots in the intelligence testing movement and its early connection to Harvard’s scholarship selection program, the SAT has always had a rarefied air about it. Even the word “rarefied” screams SAT. The assessment is loaded with esoteric vocabulary and abstruse math concepts, which leave many students nonplussed and even slightly demoralized. The ACT, cut from the same cloth as the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, has achievement, rather than aptitude, as its foundational construct. The content is more familiar to students; grammar is tested in the context of a passage, and science closely resembles experiments they may have seen in class. Many students find this straightforward presentation a welcome relief from the SAT. If tests were people, I’d imagine the SAT to be more like your smart cousin, Phyllis, the voluble psychiatrist from Brooklyn, while the ACT is more like your Midwestern neighbor, Sue, straight and to the point, eager to lend an attentive ear and a cup of sugar for your Bundt cake recipe. It’s no surprise that the more familiar and comfortable content of the ACT has won over many students and administrators.

Some populations seem more comfortable with the ACT

Over the last 8 years, after observing hundreds of students struggling with the SAT before finding their home on the ACT, I’ve become a major proponent of the ACT. When I give lectures around the country, I frequently sing the praises of the ACT as a fabulous alternative to the SAT. Do your kids excel academically but struggle with standardized tests? Try the ACT. Do your kids have LD issues other than processing speed deficits (for the ACT is a speed test at its core)? Try the ACT. Are your kids infrequent readers with weaker vocabularies? Try the ACT. When in doubt, try the ACT. Educators across the country have begun to realize that some of their students are SAT naturals while others are built for the ACT. In order to give each student the easiest pathway to college, educators are making space for both the SAT and the ACT.

The ACT is making inroads in earlier grades, breaking the PSAT-SAT pipeline

The SAT gained a monopoly in certain territories by locking down clients early. Growing up, I took the SAT for Duke’s TIP program in 7th grade and several PSATs as an underclassman. By the time I was a junior, it was a foregone conclusion I’d sit for the SAT. In order to break into this SAT culture, the ACT needs to run disruption early in the cycle. And that is exactly what it is doing. The ACT marketing division has a PLAN, and they’d like to EXPLORE it with you. The ACT growth strategy involves reaching the kids as early as 8th or 9th grade with the EXPLORE test, then moving to the PLAN test in 10th, paving the way for the ACT in 11th. The ACT marketers have had tremendous success with these initiatives.

State-wide contracts are tipping the scale

The ACT has overtaken the SAT in large part due to an aggressive marketing campaign that highlights the ACT’s alignment with high school achievement, rather than mere aptitude. This strategy is working like gangbusters with school administrators, who, hoping to raise the achievement levels of all of their students, have awarded state-wide contracts to ACT Inc. Twenty-two states now have contracts with the ACT Inc. for the ACT, EXPLORE, PLAN or some form of student assessment. Check out this map to see ACT Inc.’s current footprint across the US:

Additionally, ACT Inc. has now locked down ten states who will administer the ACT to all of their juniors: Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota, Tennessee, Wyoming, and, most recently, North Carolina. If North Carolina, a deeply entrenched SAT state, can shift sides, the SAT’s traditional strongholds are tenuous at best. Compared to the ACT’s 10 states, the SAT can only boast three statewide contracts: Delaware, Maine and Idaho.

Growth and Survival: Aligning with the Common Core

In the new landscape of American Education, where high school achievement standards are becoming increasingly prominent, the ACT is several steps ahead of the SAT. The Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) is creating a set of national standards to allow students to benchmark their preparedness for college and the workforce. To stay relevant, college assessments of the future will need to be aligned with the “Common Core.” Both the College Board and ACT Inc. have been invited to the table to participate in the development of the Common Core, but they are not the only players. The US Department of Education has funded two multistate consortia to develop an assessment system aligned with the Common Core standards: the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. If these organizations develop a comprehensive assessment system that effectively assesses mastery of the common core curriculum and predicts college readiness, both the SAT and the ACT may be rendered obsolete.

The College Board and ACT Inc. are both working to make a case for their ongoing relevance. Of the two organizations, the ACT Inc. has been much more effective in positioning its battery of assessments as the natural tests to measure Common Core mastery. ACT Inc. has been pitching its Course Standards and College Readiness Standards™ as in alignment with the Common Core Standards. On its website, the ACT Inc. touts alignment levels as high as 88-100% for Mathematics, 100% for English Language Arts, and 100% for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. ACT Inc. hopes to partner with states to help them identify where to “invest their time and resources for curricular improvement.”

The SAT responds

The leadership at the College Board can read the writing on the wall. The new president of the College Board, David Coleman, recently led one of the partnerships to develop the math/literacy Common Core Standards. He strongly implied in October that the College Board plans to change the SAT to reflect the CCSSI. After nearly 80 years the College Board may finally strip away the remnants of aptitude that remain on the SAT, eliminating the psychometric residue of old IQ tests, and create an assessment better aligned to what students are actually learning in school.

Looking Ahead

The stakes are higher than ever in the battle for test-dominance. The ACT currently has the lead and will likely extend that in the short term. Will the ACT ultimately come out ahead? Will the SAT be able to remake itself completely to align with the CCSSI? Will PARCC or Smarter Balance come up with an assessment system that renders the ACT and SAT obsolete, or will “aligned” versions of the SAT and ACT keep them from falling into redundancy? Stay tuned!

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  • Linda Kaye

    Of great importance is to begin studying months before the SAT or ACT and work regularly and consistently. Learning the grammar rules, increasing vocabulary, and enhancing essay skills– each is a time consuming endeavor.
    Also, use a book which includes detailed answer explanations so that the student is able to enhance skills by learning from from inevitable mistakes.

  • Jon W

    ‘We knew sweet tea, Peachtree and the SAT….’ Classic!