ACT’s popularity increases

Chronicle Staff

Though the SAT remains the most popular college admissions exam, the number of students taking the ACT, a rival test that focuses more on academics than on reasoning, has shot up 200 percent since 2000 as nearly all colleges have come to accept either test.

Over the past six years, the SAT has actually shown a slight decline, but that may reflect students who decide not to retake the test in their senior year after scoring well their junior year.

“More people are just taking either both programs, or people who would not have prepped at all for the SAT are prepping for the ACT,” said Jason Breitkopf, an associate director at Ivy West, a test prep company in Marina del Rey. “No decline in SAT, just more ACT.”

Reasons why increasing numbers of students are turning to the ACT are varied. This year, the SAT reported a national decline of five points on the average Verbal score and two points on the average Math score, while the ACT reported its largest score increase in 20 years. In addition, the College Board, which owns and manages the SAT, scored more than 5,000 exams incorrectly last October, some by as many as 450 points, and some parents have expressed concern.

Yet many students are attracted to the ACT for its own merits.

With no guessing penalty, less math than the SAT and a slightly shorter length, the ACT appeals to a different kind of test-taker.

“A lot of students find it a more straight-forward test,” said Danny Strauss, the head of the tutoring company A Perfect Score.

“Their ACT scores tend to reflect how smart they are, whereas the SAT doesn’t.” Others just want another opportunity to do well in the college admissions process, especially if their SAT scores are less than stellar.

“Some people just to better on one versus the other, and it’s important to figure out which one you’re better at,” Kendall Bass ’07, who took the ACT twice, said.

 The SAT is divided into three subtests, math, verbal and writing, each worth a score of 800, and the subtest scores are added for a maximum possible score of 2400. The ACT, on the other hand, has four sections, math, science, reading and English, which are averaged together into a total score that ranges from zero to 36.

Mirroring the SAT’s addition of a writing subtest that includes an essay, the ACT has recently tacked on an optional essay to the regular test, making the total time to administer it roughly equal to the SAT. Both tests require about four hours to administer, including short breaks between certain segments.

Although almost all major colleges accept either test, the SAT and the ACT reflect highly different philosophies. While the SAT attempts to test critical thinking skills, the ACT is an assessment of scholastic achievement, tied more closely to what students learn in high school.

The SAT also penalizes students for wrong answers, while the ACT treats an incorrect response as though the student had left the question blank.

The SAT also penalizes students for wrong answers, while the ACT treats an incorrect response as though the student had left the question blank.

“It’s as if you have two different teachers preparing a test for the same course: a nice teacher and a mean teacher,” Strauss said.

“The nice teacher has prepared the ACT and the mean teacher has prepared the SAT.”

Strauss believes that the ACT is a fundamentally better test because it doesn’t rely on decption to try to “trap” students.

“To prepare fully for the SAT, you need to know what the tricks are and how to beat them,” he said.

Yet for some, the SAT’s analytical style of questioning can result in higher scores than on the ACT’s skills-based assessment.

“I personally find the SAT easier because the material is less challenging in terms of raw skill, and it’s more about your ability to problem solve and do puzzles,” Breitkopf said.

One clear-cut advantage students taking the ACT have, however, is that the test can be taken multiple times and colleges will see only the highest score. For the SAT, the College Board sends schools every score students have received, even when the results are lower than on previous tests.

 Nicky Berger ’07 has taken the ACT eight times in the past year, each time hoping his score will improve.

“The whole thing with the ACT is that each test is totally different,” he said. “I’ll range between four points from one test to another. That’s why I keep taking it. Hopefully it will be easier.”

On the ACT, four points is a large margin, equivalent to over 250 points on the SAT.

Since the beginning of junior year, Berger has taken the test nearly every month it has been offered, and he may take it again in October if his September scores don’t show an improvement. He has never taken the SAT.

“My mom and I decided maybe I should try the ACT,” he said. “I really liked the idea that if I bombed it, I wouldn’t have to send the score. It’s a lot less pressure.”

But some college counselors worry that repeatedly taking the same test can backfire, especially if students allow their grades or extracurricular activities to fall by the wayside.

“In the end, in selection committee, no admissions officer is going to say, ‘Boy, do you remember that student who had the 35 on the ACT?’” Dean Canh Oxelson said.

Many students have also found the opportunity to retake the test to be more attractive in theory than in practice. When taken with the writing section, the registration fee for the ACT is $43, and the test requires an entire Saturday morning to administer. In addition, some students find that their scores hardly vary from test to test.

Bass received the same score both times she took it this year, and she decided against retaking it because she worried she might get the same score again.

“I got the same total score both times,” she said. “And, I often got the same score on the practice ACT. Which almost makes it seem like it’s better at measuring your capabilities.”

 Campbell Hall, a K-12 college preparatory school on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, makes both the ACT and the SAT mandatory for its high school juniors.

“We originally asked them to try it because many of our art students didn’t feel that their math scores really reflected their strengths in a way that they felt empowered,” Campbell Hall College Counselor Kris Ragland said. “With the SATs putting so much emphasis on math, they were more comfortable with having only 25 percent math on the ACTs.”

Students at Campbell Hall take both tests at the end of junior year, and they are encouraged to compare their scores over the summer before choosing which one to retake senior year, if necessary. Counselors use conversion charts that can be used to relate scores on the two tests, where a 2400 on the SAT is worth a 36 on the ACT.

“If you submit both the ACT and the SAT, they’ll just take your better score,” Ragland said.

Unlike Campbell Hall, Harvard-Westlake does not require its students to take either the SAT or the ACT, although the school does administer the PSAT, a simplified version of the SAT that doubles as the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship, to sophomores and juniors.

“So long as the PSAT is the currency of the National Merit Scholarship qualifying test, then our students will continue to take it,” President Thomas C. Hudnut said.

 The ACT, called the ACT Assessment before 1997, was created by two professors working at the University of Iowa in 1959, although the test and the not-for-profit organization that administers it, ACT, Inc., have no affiliation with the university.

The test has historically had a greater following in the center of the country. Both Illinois and Colorado require that the ACT be administered to all high school juniors in each state.

But recently, the popularity of the ACT has grown rapidly nationwide, and even the Ivy League schools have come to accept the ACT as an alternative to the SAT.

“More colleges started to accept it, so kids saw it as an opportunity to shine,” Hudnut said. “And if, in fact, they can shine more brightly on the ACT, let them.”

The ACT will be offered at Hamilton High School Oct. 28.