ACT popularity continues to soar among students

By Michelle Nosratian

Alexandria Mao ’10 woke up at 7 a.m., gathered some pens and a calculator and ate a hearty breakfast, but she wasn’t headed for Harvard-Westlake. It was the first of a few times that Mao would take a college entrance exam, and she was taking it at University High School.

Mao vividly remembers the anticipation of standing in the lengthy ACT registration line.

“We had assigned seats by number and we had to find our seat,” Mao said. “After that we started and the rest was history.”

Every year, millions of students across and beyond the United States find themselves face to face with either the SAT administered by the College Board or the American College Test, which serve as criteria for universities to evaluate prospective freshmen.

For years, the SAT has been the dominant college entrance exam. However, over the past decade, its under-the-radar rival, the ACT, has been gaining popularity.

“The number of ACT-tested graduating seniors nationally has been increasing at a substantial rate,” ACT spokesman Ed Colby said. “Participation has been rapidly increasing on the West Coast as well, up by nearly 50 percent in 2008 compared to 2004.”

But SAT spokeswoman Alana Klein said the SAT remains more popular.  

“The SAT is the most widely-accepted admissions test and the most rigorously researched and tested in the world,” she said. “A record number of students in the class of 2008 took the SAT.”

Historically, the SAT, based in New York City, has been preferred on the coasts, whereas the ACT, based in Iowa City, Iowa, has commanded strongholds in the Midwest and South.

Choosing the ACT over the SAT

Colby attributes the growing popularity of the ACT to the fact that it is a curriculum-based test that measures what students have learned in school.

“Many students tell us it reminds them of the types of tests they are used to taking in school, so there may be a greater comfort level with the ACT’s content and format,” he said.

Klein says the SAT measures students’ ability to apply their knowledge and use reasoning skills to solve problems.

Differences in composition, format and length account for much of the switchover.

Mao views the ACT’s alternate composition as a big selling point.

“I chose the ACT for its science section,” Mao said. “It’s exciting to do something different for a change in addition to the mind-boring cycle of math and verbal sections.”

Although she has taken both tests, Mao confesses that she “only took the SAT to have the score in case colleges preferred it.”

“I didn’t prepare for the ACT and went in cold,” she said. “Going to Harvard-Westlake is in itself prep for the ACT.”

Courtney Reamer ’10 originally accepted that she would go the traditional route with the SAT.

“I changed my mind when my tutor suggested the ACT because it doesn’t have sentence completions and that was my biggest weakness,” Reamer said. “I ended up taking both, but I think the ACT was way easier.”

The deans’ response to the ACT

Despite statistical growth, the ACT is still considered second to the SAT by Harvard-Westlake deans.

“There are some students, if they don’t score as well as we expected them to on the SAT, to whom we may suggest the ACT,” Oxelson said. “I’ve always looked at the ACT as a secondary option.”

Oxelson confirms that the deans are “considering and certainly talking about offering the ACT exam on campus.” This year, sophomores were allowed the option to take the PLAN, the ACT’s version of the PSAT.

Even with all the commotion over the ACT, many students, like Justin Chen ’10, are still taking the traditional route. Chen took the initiative to sign himself up for classes at Elite Educational Institute and for the December 2008 SAT at Harvard-Westlake.

New score choice policy

The Score Choice option approved by the College Board last June that will apply to the class of 2010 is believed to be a retaliation against the growth in the ACT’s popularity. Under the new policy, students will be able to choose which scores college admissions officers see on College Board—administered tests. Although there is no extra charge, students must opt into the program online or by telephone.

“Score Choice was designed to reduce student stress and allow students to put their best foot forward on test day,” Klein said.

The new rule has deans worrying about students’ well-being.

“We don’t want students to look at Score Choice and decide to take more standardized tests,” Oxelson said. “No one wants to take any more, but I think sometimes they feel like they should, especially if they have a chance to decide which scores colleges can see.”

The change in policy has prompted mixed reactions from colleges and universities. The University of California system will continue to choose the best score of a single sitting, regardless of the number of times a student tackles the exam.

Although the College Board ruled out allowing students to mix and match math, reading and writing scores from different sittings, many colleges will continue to combine scores from each section into one superscore. By retaining their old practices regarding the SAT, colleges are trusting students to send all of their scores. If and how colleges will penalize students who do otherwise remains to be seen.

“We respect the right of colleges and univerwsities to make their own decisions.” Klein said.

Colby is unfazed by the debate.

“The ACT has been offering students score choice since the test was introduced in 1959 and response to it has always been positive from both students and colleges,” Colby said.

GPA trumps all

The College Board’s adoption of score choice also comes at a time when universities are placing less emphasis on standardized testing.

“I understand why students feel that standardized testing is really important, but, truth is, there is nothing unique about a standardized test score, not even a perfect score,” Oxelson said.

Even Chen, who spent much of his summer preparing for the SAT, realizes that at a certain point “there is nothing more you can do than your best.”

There is one measure that will always be of consequence in the competitive college admissions process.

“Every college is different; they all have their own institutional priorities, so it is tough to make a blanket statement,” Oxelson said. “But grades are always going to be number one.”