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ACT or SAT? More Students Answering 'All Of the Above'

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 12, 2008; Page A01

For students in the Washington region, picking a college entrance test has become a multiple-choice question.

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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.

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