Caught in the ACT: Students supplement the SAT with more curriculum-based test

What has three letters, is taken in your junior or senior year and is the most widely taken college entrance exam in the United States?

Your first guess was probably the SAT. Your first guess was probably wrong.

Despite being newer and less famous, the SAT’s leading competitor, the ACT, was more popular with the national class of 2012.

Roughly 1500 more students who graduated last year took the ACT, although both tests had more than 1.66 million takers nationwide.

This relationship does not apply to Country Day, California (where only 25 percent of 2012 graduates took the ACT), or any other state on the East or West Coasts, where the SAT is still dominant.

But college counselor Brooke Wells has still noticed that the ACT is becoming more popular at SCDS.

“Five years ago, it was rare for kids to take the ACT, but now it is rare for kids not to,” he said.

Statistics confirm his observations: 12 students took the ACT in the SCDS class of 2007, while last year’s class had 24 takers.

“Fifteen to 20 years ago, it was only in the middle of the country that people used the ACT,” Wells said. “It wasn’t even an option when I was a kid (in Philadelphia)—it was not even spoken of.”

In 1994, 36 percent of graduates nationwide and 11 percent in California took the ACT. In 2000, 38 percent and 12 percent, respectively, and in 2012, 52 percent and 25 percent.

Teacher Chris Kuipers, a former admissions officer at Stanford and Amherst, said that colleges generally look at SAT and ACT scores the same. To be compared, scores are converted from the ACT’s 1-36 scale to the SAT’s 600-2400 or vice versa.

For example, the mean score is around 21 for each section on the ACT (which averages into a composite score) and roughly 500 (for a total of 1500) on each section of the SAT.

And each point on the ACT corresponds to a range of around 50 points on the SAT.

According to Kuipers, the ACT’s smaller scale works differently for college admissions, as the SAT’s has additional gradations.

“To an admissions officer, there’s no difference between a 2310 and a 2300 (on the SAT), so we ignore those,” he said.

Kuipers said the ACT is becoming “more and more mainstream” among all colleges.

Independent college counselor Margaret Amott cited several reasons for this change.

Since most people are now aware of the test, its use has grown quickly—“it is no longer novel to Californians,” Amott said.

Another reason is that some colleges will accept the ACT instead of SAT Subject Tests.

And now all four-year colleges accept the ACT as an alternative to the SAT—Harvey Mudd College made the change last in 2007.

And according to Amott, many high schools promote the ACT more than SCDS—more and more are administering the PLAN (the PSAT’s counterpart) to sophomores, and nine states require the ACT for all high schools to assess their performance.

Lastly, the ACT and SAT simply appeal to different students.

The ACT is more achievement-based, testing students on what they learned in the classroom, while the SAT is aptitude-based, similar to an IQ test.

“I have always felt the truly academic student—epitomized by a rigorous curriculum and quality grades, although not necessarily a strong standardized-test taker—will do better on the ACT,” Amott said.

“The ACT tends to reward readers, and the math tested is more advanced than that on the SAT.”

The ACT is also formatted differently with five sections: English, math, reading, science and an optional essay. The SAT has only three: critical reading, math and writing (including a mandatory essay).

The science section in the ACT, absent in the SAT, emphasizes scientific reasoning skills rather than  knowledge. The test requires students to interpret data, research, or viewpoints.

Senior Carter Brown liked this section.

“I feel like the science part better measures the ability of a student to analyze a different type of writing and a different type of material,” he said.

But senior Jianna Gudebski felt the material in the section was harder to understand.

“If you couldn’t find a specific answer on a chart, you had to completely guess,” she said. “You couldn’t think critically—you had to look for the answers.”

The ACT is shorter (2 hours and 55 minutes plus 30 minutes for the essay), but is split into larger sections of up to 60 minutes in length.

The SAT is 3 hours and 45 minutes, but each subsection is no longer than 25 minutes.

Brown preferred the ACT because each subject was contained in a single section.

“You were given your topic to do and you did it,” he said. “In the SAT, there was a lot of jumping around from the reading to the math and back to the reading and to the grammar.

“In the ACT, they were each in their separate blocks.”

But senior Jack Lewis actually preferred the SAT for this reason.

“It’s a big problem to pace yourself,” he said. “With the ACT you might have 60 minutes to do 60 problems instead of 20 or 30. It’s harder to manage your time.”

Gudebski agrees.

“The ACT was really fast paced, and I didn’t feel like I had time to check my work and get through every problem,” she said.

But all three students still found their SAT and ACT scores to be comparable.

“It seems like the vast majority of people do basically the same,” Wells said.

Wells simply recommends the ACT to those disappointed with their SAT scores.

“I do recommend it, but I don’t say it’s going to change your life,” he said. “The fact of the matter is most of us are either good at those things or not.”

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