Should I take the ACT or the SAT?

SAT Wait and See

As the SAT rolls out, students and college admission counseling professionals are wondering how it could change the college application process.

By Richard J. Dalton Jr., founder of Your Score Booster SAT & ACT Classes and Tutoring

Deciding which standardized test to take used to be guided by geography: Where students lived was the main determining factor whether they would take the SAT or ACT. Nowadays there’s no hard-and-fast rule and even highly-selective universities are making sure students know there’s no advantage to taking one test over the other. “Students may submit whichever test they choose, or both” said Princeton University (NJ) spokesman Martin Mbugua.

Schools are neutral about which scores students submit. Said Stanford University spokeswoman Lisa Lapin, “We accept either test on equal footing.” This leaves the decision to the students, who are wondering if the changes to the SAT will help them or hurt them.

With the launch of the revised SAT in March, students are asking even more questions, as the changes are dramatic, starting with a return to a total score of 1600, the same total before the switch to 2400 in 2005. The new exam also has adopted some elements of the ACT, eliminating the so-called “guessing penalty,” having four sections, putting grammar questions in paragraph format, and making the essay optional. Sentence completion questions are gone, along with many difficult vocabulary words. Students have slightly more time for each question, but one math section forbids the use of a calculator.

The SAT had long been the most popular exam. However, in 2012 more students took the ACT than took the SAT. “Some of the changes to the SAT may have brought attention to the fact that there is an alternative,” said ACT spokesman Ed Colby. In fact, at the last major overhaul for the SAT, in 2005, 40 percent of graduates took the ACT, a figure that grew to 59 percent this year.

Most in the profession are awaiting the rollout before casting judgment. “With the SAT, I’m going to have to wait and see,” said educational consultant Whitney Laughlin, based in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Victoria, British Columbia. “I think that’s how a lot of people feel.”

Some are even recommending that students not take the first few administrations of the SAT. “Why pay for the privilege of being a guinea pig?” added Bob Schaeffer, public education director for Fairtest, a critic of standardized testing.

Scores for the March exam and concordance tables equating scores to the old SAT scores won’t be released until May.

Eric J. Furda, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, said the university accepts both the old and SAT and the ACT equally, but he thinks students’ familiarity with the ACT would likely influence students to take it in the near term. “During this transition you’re going to see more students taking the ACT, which has already been on the rise,” he said. “Without getting caught up in the politics of it, I think that’s going to be common-sense behavior.”

Only Four Practice Exams

Test-preparation experts also note that the College Board has released only four practice exams for the SAT, while many more previously administered ACT exams are available.

But Cyndie Schmeiser, chief of assessment at the College Board, said advising against taking the SAT is “fear-based advice, which is not in the best interest of students… We’ve done a lot of research to make sure that starting in March and moving forward that our tests are reflecting the best science in testing.”

Sean Hawes, an educational consultant in Bellingham, Washington, said the elimination of difficult vocabulary and extra time may be a draw for some students. “Some students may eventually like the SAT better,” he said. “The SAT may bounce back.”

For now, we know the SAT infuses reading throughout every section, writing, math—word problems dominate the math section—and the essay. The test’s language also has become more complex, so it could be more difficult for students who speak English as a second language. The ACT is less complicated, but grants less time per question.

One traditional advantage of the SAT has been superscoring: Taking the highest score on each section, regardless of the test date. (Admission offices won’t accept mix-and-match scores from the old SAT and the SAT because the tests are so different.) Superscoring the ACT is less common and practically irrelevant, resulting in no difference or a one-point gain in 94 percent of cases, according to data from ACT.

Many experts recommend figuring out up front which test to study for and focusing on that exam. They say to base this choice on a student’s selection of universities and goal scores. Practice tests and test-prep classes can help students determine where they’ll do well.

Some students submit both exam scores, a growing trend in recent years, hoping to give admission offices more information to bolster their applications. But Furda cautioned that studying for and taking both exams or taking one exam multiple times can take away from time allocated to high school work. “You can’t manufacture more hours in a day,” he said. “It’s going to come from something else.”

Richard Dalton, is a journalist and founder of Your Score Booster SAT & ACT Classes and Tutoring.

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