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Posted at 04:05 PM ET, 09/24/2012

How ACT overtook SAT as the top college entrance exam

The ACT has for the first time overtaken the SAT as the most popular college admissions exam by a margin of a few thousand students.

Look at how things changed over time (information from FairTest):


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1986: 730,000 students took the ACT compared with 1,000,748 who took the SAT.

1996: 924,663  took the ACT; 1,084,725 took the SAT.

2006: 1,206,455 took the ACT; 1,465,744 took the SAT.

2011: 1,623,112 took the ACT; 1,647,123* took the SAT

2012: 1,666,017 took the ACT; 1,664,479* took the SAT

* Once it saw that the number of ACT-takers had grown larger, based on a historically consistent measure, the College Board revised the 2010 SAT total upward by including more exam administrations, a practice it continued in 2011 and 2012.

So, how did this happen? Here’s the explanation from Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending the misuse of standardized tests.

1) The ACT is perceived as a more consumer-friendly exam by students.

    * The ACT "writing" test is optional, so it takes less time (and money) if you are applying to the many schools that don't require a writing score.

    * The ACT is scored with no deduction for wrong answers, eliminating the psychological hurdle of figuring out the best strategy to for avoiding the SAT's guessing penalty.

    * The ACT has long had “score choice,” which has only recently been added by SAT, meaning one day's bad score does not become a permanent “scarlet number” on a college application.

    * The ACT's content coverage is more familiar to many students — reading, math, English, science — compared with the less curriculum-linked SAT.

* The College Board's scoring errors, flaws and big executive salaries get far more media coverage than do the ACT’s because of decades of media fixation on the SAT. (FairTest typically gets 10 times as many media calls about the SAT as opposed to the ACT.)

2) ACT has shrewdly marketed its exam to many states as a replacement for (or supplement to) high school exit exams, arguing that adoption will reduce the number of tests a college-bound student must take while encouraging more teenagers to consider college. As a result, virtually 100 percent of students in nine states — including populous ones such as Illinois, Michigan and Colorado — automatically take the ACT with taxpayers footing the bill.

3) The College Board was very slow to adopt a similar marketing strategy, signing up only the less-populated state of Maine to require the SAT of all students. Case in point: North Carolina is about to include the ACT in its state assessment system, meaning that all high school students there must take it, even though the SAT has historically been the dominant college admissions test in that state.

Here are some related posts that may interest you:

The man who takes the SAT for a living

When kids cheat on SAT, ACT

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