By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
For students in the Washington region, picking a college entrance test has become a multiple-choice question.
The SAT has long dominated the bustling college-prep market in the District and its suburbs. But the rival ACT is making inroads, buoyed by a shift in conventional wisdom, which now holds that the tests are of about equal value and that a student would be wise to take both. Colleges are driving the trend because admission officers are spreading the word that it doesn't matter which test students take.
The ascendance of the ACT has brought Hertz-Avis style competition to the test-obsessed D.C. region. It's a boon to students, who find they have more ways than ever to impress colleges. The SAT tests how students think. The ACT measures what they have learned. Each is a better fit for some students than others.
"You'll do well on at least one of the tests," said Jordan Kirschenbaum, 15, a junior at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac. He plans to take both.
ACT participation has doubled in Fairfax and Montgomery counties in the past three years, rising from about 2,550 seniors in 2005 to more than 5,100 this year. The SAT remains dominant, but the number of seniors who took the test in the two counties declined this year to about 16,900 from about 17,600 last year.
Melissa Goldberg, 17, a senior at James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring, took the ACT last month on the advice of her guidance counselor and her parents, who reminded her that the ACT had come up in all of her college visits. She has sat for the SAT three times. If she did well on the ACT, she might take it again. The ACT, she said, is "definitely something the colleges are looking at more now than before."
A decade ago, the ACT was virtually unknown in this region, reflecting the supremacy of the SAT on the East Coast. But in the past five years or so, colleges have stated "with unanimity" that they don't care which test students take, said Paul Kanarek, vice president of the test-preparatory company Princeton Review.
Guidance counselors in this area used to advise students to take the SAT as many times as necessary to yield an acceptable score. Now, they might tell students to take each test once, then retake the one they liked better, said Henry Broaddus, dean of admission at the College of William and Mary. "And I actually think that's fairly sane advice."
Although they operate as nonprofit groups, the New York-based College Board, which owns the SAT, and Iowa-based ACT Inc. have an interest in building market share and maintaining prestige among students and colleges in every state.
"We're growing everywhere, but it's especially dramatic down the East Coast," said Jon Erickson, vice president for educational services at ACT.
"We don't see this as a horse race," said Alana Klein, a College Board spokeswoman. "What's important to us is that students are prepared for and succeed in college."
The College Board recently unveiled an eighth-grade assessment and changed a rule to allow students to report only their best scores from multiple tests. Both moves could be viewed as responses to the ACT, which publishes an eighth-grade test and allows students to choose the scores they send to colleges.
College entrance tests remain vital to the admission process, even in an era when dozens of colleges have waived them as a requirement.
The SAT, introduced in 1926, has evolved from its origins as a quasi-intelligence test for Ivy League applicants. Today, the test spans three hours and 45 minutes and three sections in reading, writing and math, including an essay. The ACT was introduced in 1959 as an alternative, focusing on curriculum, with sections in English, math, reading and science and an optional essay. It is most prevalent in the middle of the country. The core test, not including the essay, takes two hours and 55 minutes.
Each SAT section yields a score from 200 to 800, while ACT section scores top out at 36. A typical applicant to a competitive college might boast section scores in the upper 20s for the ACT and above 600 for the SAT.
To an extent, the recent popularity of ACT reflects backlash against changes to the SAT. The College Board expanded the exam from two sections to three in 2005. The result was a longer test that some students did not care to take twice.
A Montgomery school system analysis shows that the number of students who retook the SAT dwindled from 5,049 in 2005 to 4,361 this year. About one-quarter of this year's Montgomery graduates took the ACT.
"They're voting with their feet," said Montgomery School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast, who was among the first educators in the region to note the migration from one test to the other.
College Board officials did not furnish comparable data for the nation but confirmed that fewer students are retaking the test. Klein said the number of repeat customers stabilized last year after declining in 2006.
ACT hype has crept into the local test-prep field, "and with good reason," said Erik Kimel, founder of the Peer2Peer tutoring service in Montgomery. Local school systems recently have begun reporting ACT results alongside SAT scores. Parents at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda give practice SAT and ACT tests on different Saturdays.
"Clearly, the ACT is beginning to challenge the SAT's dominance in our local college testing market," said Christopher Garran, the school's principal.
College Board officials say the ACT's gain is not necessarily the SAT's loss. The number of students taking the SAT nationwide is up 30 percent since 1998. For the ACT, the totals are up 43 percent. In the Washington region, where the ACT is booming, SAT participation is steady.
Still, the College Board seems to be fighting back. Last summer, the New York publisher announced that students would soon be permitted to pick their best scores from multiple SAT tests to show colleges. At present, colleges receive all of a student's scores.
The change, effective with the Class of 2010, seems tailored to encourage repeat business. Vincent Abadsantos, a junior in the International Baccalaureate program at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, said the new policy is "the primary driving factor" for choosing the SAT for himself and his friends, many of whom will take it two or three times. He does not plan to take the ACT.
Last month, the College Board also announced a new test to prepare eighth-grade students for the rigors of high school. Promoters said the ReadiStep exam helps create a "college-going culture." Some industry insiders say the test is more about test-taking culture: steering ever-younger students onto the SAT track, a role filled by the Preliminary SAT.
"It's a business move, and it's an intelligent move," Kanarek said.
Klein, of the College Board, said the new test "is completely unrelated to the college admissions process." ReadiStep will be rolled out next fall. Maryland officials said it would be piloted in three middle schools in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. Virginia and D.C. officials had no set plans.
Analysts say some of the region's best students take both tests to see which yields the better score.
Of 11,636 applicants to William and Mary for the class that entered this fall, 3,800 took the ACT, Broaddus said. Most of those students also took the SAT.
"What we see is more and more students who want to take both exams," he said.
Staff writer Maria Glod contributed to this report.