Opinion
Education Opinion

The SAT-ACT Duel for Supremacy

By Walt Gardner — June 22, 2010 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The school year is finally over, but summer vacation won’t be the idyllic time of yore for many high school students. Instead, it will be a season of prepping for either the SAT or the ACT, both of which still determine to a large extent admission to most marquee-name colleges and universities.

Until fairly recently, the SAT totally dominated the field, but the ACT is slowly gaining ground on its rival. The competition pits the College Board, which owns the SAT, against American College Testing, which owns the ACT. The latter has been around only since 1959, while the former was created in 1926. The ACT for many years was most popular in the Midwest and the South (“Scores Stagnate at High Schools,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 18, 2010). But that is changing. Today, the ACT is growing faster than its rival, not only nationally but also in such SAT strongholds as California (“ACT is to SAT as ... " Los Angeles Times, Sept. 6, 2008).

What is the difference between the two tests, and which one should students take? The ACT says its purpose is to measure classroom achievement, rather than aptitude. But there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the two terms. An aptitude test is designed to predict how well a test taker is likely to perform in a future setting. In contrast, an achievement test is designed to measure the knowledge and skills that a test taker already possesses in a given subject. While scores on both types of tests may be related, they do not necessarily correlate.

As I pointed out in “UnSATisfactory” (Education Week, Jun. 14, 2006), this confusion is reflected in the changes in the name of the SAT over the decades. When psychologist Carl C. Brigham conceived the test, it was called the Scholastic Aptitude Test in the belief that it measured innate ability. In 1994, however, the name was changed to the Scholastic Assessment Test because of concern that the original name was negatively associated with eugenics. Then in 1997, the College Board altered the name again to the SAT, which stands for nothing.

Given this background and the lack of evidence that one test is easier, or that admissions officers look more favorably on one over the other, it’s unclear why the ACT has been making such impressive strides. The ACT is slightly less expensive and requires slightly less time to complete, but in light of the high stakes it’s unlikely that these factors have anything to do with the choice that students make.

The truth is that both the SAT and the ACT are very much alike in one fundamental respect. Both are carefully designed to engineer score spread between test takers. If either test were loaded up with items that measured material effectively taught in class, scores might be bunched together, making comparisons unsatisfactory. And since both the SAT and the ACT exist to provide evidence that allows test takers to be ranked for the benefit of admissions officers, it’s a risk neither wants to run.

In the final analysis, therefore, it’s really a matter of going with one’s instinct when signing up. But no matter what the outcome on either test, it’s important to remember that their predictive value for success in college is questionable. There are far too many other variables involved that can’t be accurately measured by any instrument now in existence.

Related Tags:
ACT

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP
Education Massachusetts National Guard to Help With Busing Students to School
250 guard personnel will be available to serve as drivers of school transport vans, as districts nationwide struggle to hire enough drivers.
1 min read
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass. Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, activated the state's National Guard to help with busing students to school as districts across the country struggle to hire enough drivers.
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass.
Michael Dwyer/AP
Education FDA: ‘Very, Very Hopeful’ COVID Shots Will Be Ready for Younger Kids This Year
Dr. Peter Marks said he is hopeful that COVID-19 vaccinations for 5- to 11-year-olds will be underway by year’s end. Maybe sooner.
4 min read
Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research in the Food and Drug Administration, testifies during a Senate health, education, labor, and pensions hearing to examine an update from federal officials on efforts to combat COVID-19 on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 11, 2021. On Friday, Sept. 10, 2021, Marks urged parents to be patient, saying the agency will rapidly evaluate vaccines for 5- to 11-year-olds as soon as it gets the needed data.
Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research in the Food and Drug Administration, testifies during a Senate health, education, labor, and pensions hearing to examine an update from federal officials on efforts to combat COVID-19 on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 11, 2021.
Jim Lo Scalzo/AP