SAT revisions follow years of gains for rival ACT


Princeton Review SAT preparation books (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Anthony Simon’s experience with college admissions testing might shed light on why the College Board this week announced big revisions to its SAT exam, and why the rival ACT has become the most popular admission test in the country.

As Simon prepared for his college search, the D.C. teenager steeled himself for the SAT. He bought a book of vocabulary words and planned to memorize up to 10 words a day. He studied a lot and completed a couple of practice tests.

But he never took the official SAT. Instead, he took the other test — twice.

KIPP D.C. College Preparatory, the charter school Simon attends in Southeast Washington, asks all of its college-bound students to take the ACT in spring of their junior year and fall of their senior year. A consultant works with teachers to help students prepare for the ACT. School officials tell students that “24 opens doors,” referring to a composite score on the ACT scale that is above a college-ready benchmark. The top ACT score is 36.

Simon, now 17, got strong marks. He said he has been accepted to the University of Maryland at College Park and the University of Pittsburgh and is waiting on other applications to selective colleges.

Simon and others said a key factor that draws many students to the ACT is the SAT’s scoring format. Wrong answers to multiple-choice questions on the SAT draw a penalty, which is meant to deter random guesses. There is no such deduction on the ACT.

“The fact that we were penalized for getting answers wrong, it slows down my thought process,” Simon said. The ACT was different. “As I took more practice ACT exams, I felt better about taking it. I did pretty well.”

On Wednesday, the College Board announced an overhaul of the SAT to take effect in early 2016, when today’s high school freshmen start taking college admission tests. The wrong-answer penalty will be erased from the SAT. So will arcane vocabulary. The SAT essay, now required, will be made optional.

These steps and others were taken as part of a broader campaign to improve college access for disadvantaged students, College Board President David Coleman said. He wants to eliminate “tricks” from the SAT and make it more relevant to classroom learning. The College Board also will deliver four college application fee waivers to every SAT participant whose family meets an income-eligibility threshold. The waivers will enable those students to apply to college for free.

But for this agenda to gain traction, the SAT must capture the attention of students who appear to be gravitating toward the alternative.

Historically, the SAT has drawn more students on the West Coast and in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region. It remains the leader in the Washington area. The ACT leads in the Southeast and in many states in the middle of the country.

For the high school Class of 2012, the ACT claimed an overall lead after trailing the SAT for generations. For the Class of 2013, the ACT reported about 1.8 million test-takers. The SAT reported nearly 1.7 million. The ACT has partnerships with 13 states, bolstering its market share.

Asked about the ACT, Coleman told reporters Wednesday: “Our true competition is not ACT. It’s poverty.” The College Board declined to comment further Thursday.

In the Washington region, the SAT remains the most popular test, but the ACT is growing much faster.

Argelia Rodriguez, president and chief executive of the D.C. College Access Program, which provides guidance to disadvantaged students, said many 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, though, that she was not endorsing one test over the other.

A Washington Post analysis of data on the number of test-takers in the graduating classes of 2006 and 2013 showed that the market appeared to change significantly after the SAT added a required essay in 2005 that drew mixed reviews. The analysis found that ACT participation rose 53 percent in the District, to 1,647; 78 percent in Maryland, to 13,820; and 92 percent in Virginia, to 22,165.

SAT participation in that time rose 6 percent in Maryland, to 48,106; 8 percent in Virginia, to 60,640; and 11 percent in the District, to 3,977.

The admissions tests have always sought to distinguish themselves.

The SAT, begun in 1926, is rooted in a tradition of assessing how students think regardless of the classes they took. 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, launched in 1959, focuses on student achievement in core subjects. Its four required sections are English, mathematics, reading and science.

The two are still quite different. But the SAT revisions announced Wednesday signal important overlaps. The ACT takes two hours and 55 minutes, plus the optional essay. The SAT — now three hours and 45 minutes long with a required essay — will in 2016 become a three-hour test, plus an optional essay.

Time matters. Sean P. Burke, a counselor at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, said that an extra hour in a testing room makes a difference. “Sometimes kids wear out during the SAT,” he said. Nearly all students at his school take the SAT, he said, but a fair number take the ACT, too.

Nick Anderson covers higher education for The Washington Post. He has been a writer and editor at The Post since 2005.
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