Why the SAT is really changing: It’s facing tough competition from the ACT

In 2005, the College Board made a big announcement -- much like today's -- about overhauling the SAT. A new essay section was added. The notorious analogy section was thrown out.

Since then, the rival ACT has steadily closed in on and surpassed the SAT in popularity. The chart below shows data compiled by the watchdog group FairTest from ACT and College Board annual reports and government data. 

testtakers

According to these numbers, the ACT passed the SAT in 2012. But by some measures, the lead may have changed earlier in 2010. That year, when it became clear that the ACT was gaining on the iconic SAT, FairTest says the College Board revised its number upward to include more exam administrations.

"This is Coke versus Pepsi trying to hold onto, or in this case try to regain, market share," said Bob Schaeffer, director of public education at FairTest. Schaeffer says the new SAT in 2005 was like "the new Coke of tests, a total failure in the marketplace."

To be fair, the SAT had a record number of test-takers last year, so it's still widely in use, especially on the East and West coasts. The ACT is more popular in the rest of the country.

The new SAT mimics the ACT in some ways. Like the ACT, the essay portion will now be optional. The College Board says the new version of the SAT won't be as hung up on vocabulary, either, so students can put down the flashcards with words like "superfluous." This change, too, makes the test more like the ACT.

The competition between the SAT and ACT isn't necessarily a zero-sum game. An increasing number of students now are taking both tests -- meaning that test-prep mania isn't likely to die out anytime soon.

Jia Lynn Yang is a staff writer at The Washington Post who covers policy and business. Before joining the Post, she worked at Fortune magazine.
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