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Published in Print: January 15, 2003, as Entrance Tests See Fall Boom In Registrants

Entrance Tests See Fall Boom In Registrants

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Midway through the academic year, registrations for the nation's two main college-entrance exams have surged, an increase many observers attribute to students' taking more tests than ever as they compete to get into their top-choice schools.

The midyear growth was particularly strong for the ACT, which saw registrations through December rise by 10.8 percent nationwide from the previous year's level. The increase of 87,892 registrants over midyear 2001-02 was the biggest jump in at least 35 years, ACT officials said.

Midyear registrations for the SAT I, meanwhile, jumped 7.7 percent compared with last school year, a "very good number," according to a top official for the test, the country's most widely used college-admissions exam.

"We're feeling very bullish right now," said Donald J. Carstensen, the vice president of educational services for the ACT, based in Iowa City, Iowa. "It's a very interesting time for us. We're anticipating our growth to continue."

The ACT's percentage increase is even more dramatic in the closely scrutinized California market, now dominated by its competitor, the SAT. Midyear numbers grew by nearly a quarter in that state.

A number of testing experts trace the sharp upturns so far this school year to the mounting pressure on students to get into increasingly selective public and private colleges. More high school juniors and seniors, once content to take either of the two entrance exams, now seem to be signing up for both in search of a better score.

The ACT costs $25 in states other than Florida, where the fee is $28, and the SAT costs $26 nationwide.

"There's a perception on the part of parents and others that the college-admissions process is becoming more competitive," said Brian O'Reilly, the executive director of the SAT for the College Board, the New York City-based nonprofit organization that sponsors the test. He said he was "very encouraged" by the test's midyear data.

Others point to the United States' growing pool of high school graduates, which is projected to increase to about 2.9 million students for the senior class of 2003, a 2.2 percent rise. That upward trend, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, a Boulder, Colo., research group, is projected to continue until 2007-08, and then begin declining, because the bulk of the children of the Baby Boom generation by then will have reached college age.

Other observers say the tepid economy, by prompting some people to choose college over an uncertain job market, is another likely factor in the rising test-taking.

Again and Again

At Chaffey High School in Ontario, Calif., counselor Robert Godinez said that while students had been signing up to take the SAT during the spring of 11th grade and the fall of 12th grade for years, more than ever were now signing up for the ACT, too, mostly during the first semester of senior year.

On average, about one-quarter of seniors at the school, located an hour east of Los Angeles, go on to four-year colleges. The University of California, Los Angeles, is typically the top choice, though getting into UCLA is tough: Only 29 percent of applicants were admitted in 2001.

"For years, nobody took the ACT. It was kind of a Midwestern test," said Mr. Godinez, a past president of the California Association for Counseling and Development. "[Now] we have more kids taking both. ... It's just drilled into kids. They'll take the tests three, four, five times."

Nationwide, the SAT I, which was taken 2.6 million times by registrants of all ages in 2001-02, continues to outpace the ACT, which had 2 million total registrants that same year.

Through the ACT's December test dates, there were 899,255 registrations for that exam, a 10.8 percent increase from 811,363 from 2001. The College Board saw its registrations through Dec. 23 for the SAT I and the SAT II rise to about nearly 1.8 million, a 7.2 percent jump from the previous year, Mr. O'Reilly said.

The SAT I is the College Board's best-known admissions test, with verbal and math sections; the SAT II is a separate achievement test, given in specific subjects, which is required by fewer colleges. When counting only registrations for the SAT I, the midyear increase was 7.7 percent, Mr. O'Reilly said.

Both SAT and ACT officials say the midyear totals easily outpace last year's growth rates. Registrations for the ACT rose by less than 1 percent through December 2001, compared with December 2000, according to company data. The SAT I rose about 1.5 percent during that same period, Mr. O'Reilly said.

The December numbers reflect three test dates in the fall of 2002 for both the ACT, which offers a total of six exams during the academic year, and the SAT I, which will stage seven exams during the 2002-03 year. Officials of both tests estimate that those exams probably account for about 40 percent of the total registrations they expect for the entire 2002-03 testing year.

Golden State

Registrations for the ACT in California have risen by 23.5 percent over this point last year, from 35,340 test-takers to 43,669. Midyear growth in the three previous years never topped 6 percent. The SAT I increased its registrations by 4 percent through December, though for a much bigger population of students—from 231,500 to 240,500 registrants.

California has long been regarded as a crucial market in college admissions. Two years ago, the SAT I absorbed a wave of criticism in the state when the University of California's president, Richard C. Atkinson, suggested that his 187,000-student system might drop the exam as an admissions requirement. He complained the exam did too little to test students on what they had learned in high school and to predict their success with college work.

The College Board responded by revamping several portions of the SAT I, and adding a written essay. The ACT later announced the addition of its own writing test.

Officials from the ACT speculated they may have gained ground on their rival in California because of the controversy. At the very least, the ACT was better able to explain how its exams—which test students in the subjects of English, math, reading, and science—were tied to what students were supposed to be learning in high school, Mr. Carstensen said. "The UC system may have brought focus to it," he said.

But Mr. O'Reilly disputed that notion, saying that criticism of the high-profile test was nothing new. Questions raised about the exam in California may have brought it even more publicity—and test-takers, he suggested. Mr. O'Reilly also noted that the SAT I continued to dwarf its rival in overall registration figures in California, and that in raw numbers, the midyear growth for both testing organizations—about 9,000 students—was about the same in the state.

While "it does seem the ACT appears to have made some inroads," Mr. O'Reilly said of California, "I'm less upset than I would be otherwise, because our [raw] numbers appear to match and even exceed them."

The University of California requires applicants to take either the SAT or the ACT for admission, along with SAT II achievement tests in mathematics, writing, and a third subject of the student's choice. The California State University system, which has about 307,000 undergraduates and is considered less selective, generally requires the SAT or the ACT if a student has a grade point average below 3.0.

Take Two

Midyear registrations for the ACT also rose sharply in several heavily populated states where the numbers have favored the SAT. Figures for the SAT rose as well. ACT registrations rose by 21.4 percent in New York, 14.3 percent in Texas, and 14 percent in Florida, while the SAT grew respectively by 5.6 percent, 13.5 percent, and 10.5 percent in those states.

In some cases, that growth didn't appear to reflect changes in students' perspectives on the two exams, so much as a desire to give them another chip they could draw upon in the high-stakes admissions game.

Alaina K. Sudeith, a senior at University High School in Irvine, Calif., applied to 11 schools, including elites such as Brown University, UC-Berkeley, and Pomona College, in Claremont, Calif.

Taking only the SAT I probably would have been OK—and she wound up pleased with her scores on that exam. But when competing with thousands of other applicants, she figured, what's the harm in taking both, in search of the best score?

"The SAT's obvious—I had to take it," said Ms. Sudeith, 18. "But I wanted to keep my options open. I kind of took [the ACT, as a junior] to see what would happen."

The vast majority of the nation's higher education institutions remain very accessible in admissions, said Barmak Nassirian, the associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, based in Washington.

But the biggest shift, he noted, can be seen at more elite private colleges—and many public, four-year universities, which have seemed to grow more selective by the year. California's universities, for instance, are among the most selective public schools in the country.

In recent years, the ACT has tried to step up efforts to promote itself in school districts and the news media, Mr. Carstensen pointed out. Interest in ACT-run academic-preparation programs in middle and high schools has also grown in several states, including California, he added.

Some testing-industry officials suggested that the ACT's testing numbers might have been boosted by registrants in Colorado and Illinois, two states that now require all juniors to take the exam.

But those statewide programs took effect before the fall of 2001. Also, those tests are staged during the spring semester and thus would be irrelevant to this past fall's upswing, ACT officials say. Midyear registrations rose by 7.5 percent in Colorado and 7.8 percent in Illinois from 2002 to 2003, below the national average increase of almost 11 percent.

Officials at Kaplan Inc., one of the nation's biggest test-prep companies, said registrations for their ACT courses were up more than 30 percent in 2002. The SAT courses were up 14 percent nationwide, though students cramming for that exam represent a "strong majority" of Kaplan's overall test-prep business, said Bonnie Eissner, a spokeswoman for the New York City company.

"Students are trying hard to take both tests and hedge their bets," said Seppy Basili, a vice president of Kaplan. "Competition is more real than ever."

Vol. 22, Issue 18, Pages 1,11

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Correction: 
Clarification: This story appears to suggest that the SAT represents a majority of Kaplan Inc.'s overall test-preparation business. While the SAT represents a majority of Kaplan's precollege test-preparation business, graduate school exams and professional-licensing exams constitute the bulk of the New York City-based company's test-preparation business overall.

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