ACT vs. SAT: It’s Still Your Choice

Do you watch a movie because it’s the most popular or because you think you’ll enjoy it? Do you choose a soft drink because its stock value recently went up, or because you like the taste? Do you take the most popular standardized test because your friends will be there, or because you know it’s your stronger test? While you have little to lose by choosing popular movies and soft drinks, you definitely want to think differently for the SAT/ACT test.

The ACT has blown past the SAT to become the most popular standardized test in the United States. In 2012, the number of ACT/SAT students hovered around 1.6 million in 2012, but 2013 has revealed the ACT’s overwhelming popularity with 1.8 million test takers compared with the SAT’s 1.5 million. With ACT’s State Services program, more and more U.S. states (22, at the moment) are turning to the test whose chief claim is its alignment with the Common Core standards. The SAT had its moment in the sun with the PSAT test, AP exams, and National Merit Scholarships and will likely continue to offer such programs, but the ACT is taking over the educational world with its assortment of assessments (Explore, Plan, QualityCore, Compass, and WorkKeys). As one American writer once wrote, “The game of keeping what one has is never so exciting as the game of getting.” As the maps show below, the ACT is enjoying the game of getting; the SAT is struggling to stay in the game.

ACT Gains 2009-13

SAT Losses 2009-13

The two maps show the 5-year change in seniors who took the SAT and ACT tests. A green state shows more students in 2013 than in 2009 taking the test. A red state shows fewer students in 2013 than in 2009 taking the test. The state with the highest gains on the list was North Carolina, with a 617% increase in its ACT-taking students. The highest decrease for the SAT was Kentucky, which saw a 31% dip in its turnout over the 5-year period. States that are green for both the ACT and SAT (such as Texas) saw more students taking both tests.

As the charts show, progress is uneven. In all wars, the battle zone is not a straight line. For example, The College Board saw a 448% increase in Idaho’s students taking the SAT. Regardless, the clear trend is that the ACT is dominating.

So how does the ACT’s popularity affect today’s high school student?

Colleges continue to accept both tests irrespective of their popularity, and programs such as Advanced Placement, National Merit, and SAT Subject tests are not likely to go anywhere anytime soon. Still, students will need to be ready to feel pressure one way or the other to take either the ACT or SAT. While one test may be more popular for a state, it may not be the right test for every student. As the tests continue to duke it out, it will be even more important for students to know which test suits them better.

If my state is incorporating the ACT into its high school curriculum, should I automatically take the ACT?

It depends. It’s likely that the ACT’s QualityCore assessment for high school core courses will naturally prepare students for the Plan and ACT test, at least, that seems to be the goal. The ACT wants to be the determiner of high-school and college readiness, and will do its best to convince high school students that they will perform better on the ACT than the SAT.

But in comparing ACT/SAT scores across states, a group of students will continue to choose the SAT over the ACT for the following reasons:

  • They prefer vocabulary to higher-level math.
  • They perform better on the shorter, high-burst sections than on the marathon, hour-long ones.
  • They appreciate no bizarre science section.
  • They like that their first-choice college, at the moment, super scores the SAT sections, but only takes the highest ACT composite, allowing them to take the SAT multiple times and add up the highest sections.

If you are in a state that has been “won over” by the ACT, don’t automatically assume that the ACT will be the right test for you. Spend two afternoons taking a practice ACT and a practice SAT, compare your results using a concordance table, and prep to the test that fits you better.

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