Is SAT becoming more like the ACT?

The College Board is changing the SAT again. The Post's Nick Anderson explains some things you might not know about the college admissions test and how it has evolved—starting with the meaning behind the letters "SAT." (Davin Coburn and Kate M. Tobey/The Washington Post)

The nation’s two dominant college admissions tests, the SAT and ACT, have always sought to distinguish themselves from each other. Now they may be converging in some key ways.

The SAT, begun in 1926, is rooted in a tradition of assessing how students think regardless of what curriculum they have studied. After all, no one takes a class called “verbal.” That was the longtime name of the section of the SAT that covered language skills. It was changed in 2005 and renamed “critical reading.”

The ACT was launched in 1959 as an alternative focusing on student achievement in certain subjects. The four required sections on the ACT are English, mathematics, reading and science.

They are still very different. But the College Board’s announcement Wednesday of revisions to the SAT to take effect in 2016 included some changes that make the older test like the younger.

First, the SAT will drop its requirement for students to write an essay. The SAT essay will be optional. The ACT’s essay is optional.


View a comparison of the current SAT with the redesigned SAT.

Second, the required portions of the SAT will take 3 hours. That is 45 minutes shorter than the current requirement. The required portions of the ACT take 2 hours and 55 minutes.

Third, the SAT will drop a scoring penalty for wrong answers that is meant to deter guessing. The ACT has no scoring penalty for wrong answers.

Those are all technical points, but they are not unimportant. Colleges have made clear that they don’t care which test students take. College guidance experts in the District of Columbia say the ACT in recent years has gained customers because of its format.

Argelia Rodriguez, president and chief executive of the D.C. College Access Program, which provides college guidance to many disadvantaged students, said a significant number in the city’s public schools prefer the ACT’s “simpler, more direct line of questioning.” And these students, she said, like that the ACT’s essay is optional. Rodriguez made clear she was not endorsing one test over the other.

More students take the SAT than the ACT in Washington and its suburbs.

That reflects the SAT’s historic strength in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast region. The SAT also is dominant on the West Coast.

But the ACT leads in the Southeast and in many states in the middle of the country. It also leads slightly overall, after trailing the SAT for generations. In the class of 2013, the ACT had 1,799,243 test takers. The SAT reported 1,660,047.

Here in the Washington region, the ACT’s market share is rising sharply.

In the class of 2013 in the District, 1,647 students took the ACT. That’s up 53 percent from the total seven years earlier.

Now the SAT numbers: 3,977 from the District took the older test in the class of 2013. That’s up 11 percent over 7 years.

David Coleman, the College Board president, unveiled many changes Wednesday as part of a major campaign to improve college access. He said the SAT would become more straightforward, with fewer tricks, and more emphasis on depth and analytical reasoning. He also told reporters: “Our true competition is not ACT. It’s poverty.”

But everyone at the College Board is aware of the growing prominence of the ACT. Coleman asserted: “It is time to admit that the SAT and ACT have become far too disconnected from the work of our high schools.”

ACT President Jon L. Erickson replied: “I don’t appreciate the characterization. ... Our founding principle is around connection to the classroom and that curriculum.”

The ACT said 13 states administer the ACT to all students as part of their statewide testing programs. They are: Alabama, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, and Wyoming. Next year, the ACT said, Missouri and Wisconsin will join them. These state connections set the younger test apart from the older.

Many other distinctions remain. The SAT doesn’t have a science test. Its new optional essay will be 50 minutes, longer than the 30-minute essay of the ACT.

And of course, the perfect score of the SAT will be 1600. For the ACT, it’s 36.

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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