Counting international students, 2.1 million who graduated from high school this year took the SAT. That was up more than 20 percent from the previous year’s global total of 1.7 million.
The ACT had been the overall leader since 2012. But the College Board, which owns the SAT, pushed to expand its market share in recent years by revising the test and entering into deals with numerous states and school systems to give students the exam. New contracts with Colorado and Illinois, College Board data show, were instrumental in the SAT’s growth.
There are stylistic and substantive variations between the tests. The ACT includes a science section, and the SAT doesn’t. A perfect score on the ACT is 36. On the SAT, it’s 1600. But those differences may not matter much for most students.
Both exams claim to be aligned with the school curriculum. Both are about three hours long, not counting breaks and an optional essay. Both focus on math, reading and writing. Colleges will accept a score from either.
David Coleman, president of the College Board, said the SAT’s growth validated the decision to launch a new version in 2016 with less of the tricky vocabulary that was long a hallmark of the test. The new version also dropped the “guessing penalty,” a feature that deducted points for wrong answers.
“It was essential for the College Board’s mission that the new SAT was seen as more straightforward and approachable,” Coleman said. Too often, he said, the older version was seen “narrowly as a test for advanced kids.”
Even as the SAT has grown, the College Board has drawn criticism this year over its centerpiece test.
In July, many students and parents erupted when they received math scores from the June SAT. It turned out that version was somewhat easier than previous exams. That affected the distribution of scores. A few wrong answers can lead to a lower score on an easier test than on a harder one. The College Board said the scoring process, known as equating, “ensures fairness for all students.”
In August, a version of the SAT was given in the United States that some observers said included questions previously seen in Asia. The father of a U.S. student filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of those who took the August test, alleging that the College Board had allowed a security breach that put many at a disadvantage. The College Board said it has significantly bolstered test security in recent years and will cancel scores for anyone found to have cheated.
Coleman, in a telephone interview, declined to comment further on those controversies.
The SAT, first administered in 1926, was long the preeminent admission test. The ACT launched in 1959 as an alternative to measure student achievement.
ACT officials declined to comment on recent SAT gains.
“We’re not focused on competition,” ACT spokesman Ed Colby said. “We’re focused on serving as many students as we can and on our mission.”
Within the past decade, the testing landscape has evolved rapidly as many states have opted to pay the ACT or College Board to deliver exams during school hours. Students can take those versions free of charge, where available, or they can pay to take the tests on the weekends.
Illinois recently began offering the SAT to all juniors in public high schools. As a result, SAT usage in that state spiked from 12,402 in the Class of 2017 to 145,919 in the Class of 2018. ACT usage in the state dropped by more than half, from 134,901 in the Class of 2017 to 62,626 this year.
Tony Smith, the Illinois superintendent of education, said the switch was initially a “shock to the system." But he said parents and educators are pleased with the results because the test lines up with the state curriculum. Students are able to take a practice version, called the PSAT, in 10th grade. Then, they can get help through free online tutoring, Smith said, and measure possible growth when they take the real SAT in 11th grade. “That speaks to the quality of the experience,” he said, " and how student-centered it is."
Illinois officials said they are finalizing a testing contract with the College Board that will cost $59.8 million over six years.
Some question the value of such contracts at a time when many colleges have dropped requirements for admission testing. “Think about the millions of hours of class instruction that are lost preparing for standardized tests,” said Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president for enrollment management at DePaul University in Chicago. The nation’s largest Catholic university, with nearly 23,000 students, DePaul dropped its testing requirement for the class that entered in 2012. The elite University of Chicago went test-optional this year.
Whether a student sends in ACT or SAT scores, Boeckenstedt said, is “as close to utterly irrelevant as you could describe. It makes no difference to us.”
SAT usage also spiked in Colorado because of a contract with the College Board. There, 58,790 in the Class of 2018 took the test, 10 times the total of the previous year. The SAT also recorded large gains in California, New York and Florida, the College Board said, although those states do not have similar statewide contracts.
The SAT has long been dominant in the D.C. region. The College Board delivers SAT testing in D.C. public schools, and its test is more widely used in Maryland and Virginia than the ACT.
The ACT has testing contracts with more than a dozen states, including many in the Southern and Central regions of the country.