Reading & Literacy

ACT Admissions Test, Like Rival, Adds Essay, But Makes It Optional

By Sean Cavanagh — February 01, 2005 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Like any pair of longtime competitors, the sponsors of the nation’s two major college-entrance exams, the SAT and ACT, regularly scrutinize each other’s work, and adjust their own accordingly.

In its latest overhaul of the SAT, the College Board, the New York City organization that sponsors the exam, made changes that will in some ways more closely align the test’s content and objectives with those of its longtime rival, testing observers say. In turn, ACT Inc., the Iowa City, Iowa-based owner of the ACT exam closely followed the College Board two years ago in announcing the launch of an optional written essay.

Officials of the ACT note that their test, founded in 1959 as the American College Testing Program, has sought all along to evaluate students’ knowledge of high school content—rather than to gauge their aptitude or IQ.

“We have always reflected the curriculum,” said Jon Erickson, the vice president of educational services for the ACT. “It’s always been our driving force.”

The SAT, by contrast, was criticized for years by some college and testing officials as an ill-defined measure of students’ aptitude rather than academic knowledge. Critics of the College Board’s former approach drew ammunition from the SAT’S name: Its initials stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test from the test’s creation in 1926 until 1993, when the College Board dropped that name in favor of Scholastic Assessment Tests. By the 1994-95 testing cycle, the board had settled on SAT as a stand-alone name.

College Board officials say the new version of the SAT will more effectively measure students’ mastery of topics, such as advanced mathematics, that they were supposed to have learned in high school, and gauge their preparedness for higher education.

Supply and Demand

The creators of both tests “had different philosophies, but their philosophies are kind of converging,” said David T. Conley, the director of the University of Oregon’s Center for Educational Policy Research, who has studied the academic skills high school students need to succeed in college. His center has a number of contracts with the College Board to study the academic standards included on the SAT.

“We’re seeing a reordering of the challenge level,” he said.

Jon Erickson

The ACT, which was taken by 1.2 million students in the 2004 graduating class, tests students in four major areas: English, mathematics, reading, and science, during an exam that lasts approximately four hours. The new written essay will add 30 minutes to the exam, for those who choose that option. The SAT has traditionally been taken by a stronger percentage of students on the East and West coasts; the ACT is the primary choice of more teenagers in the Midwest.

ACT officials cite a number of reasons for keeping their written essay optional. Many colleges, they say, indicated that a mandatory essay would do little to help them judge the academic ability of applicants or determine what level of English classes those freshmen should take, Mr. Erickson said.

He also pointed to a recent survey conducted by his organization showing that only 18 percent of four-year colleges that accept the ACT would require a writing test and that another 20 percent would recommend it.

“We didn’t find [a demand] from across the country, from a variety of institutions,” Mr. Erickson said.

He also cited worries about the cost: $28 for students taking the basic ACT, but $42 for those who choose the essay. (The new SAT will cost $41.50, up from $29.50.)

Influence on Curriculum

But Brian O’Reilly, the executive director for SAT information services for the College Board, said surveys conducted by his organization found that there was a strong interest in a written essay among four-year institutions, including a majority of flagship public universities.

By demanding that test-takers complete the written test, the College Board will ensure that students who apply to several schools don’t have to worry about whether or not they are meeting those institutions’ admissions criteria, he said.

“It sounds nice to give students a choice” of whether or not to write an essay, Mr. O’Reilly said. “But the option is only a benefit to students who have a limited set of colleges they’re going to apply to.”

The two rivals’ views of the usefulness of the writing test differ in other ways. Mr. Erickson said ACT officials are interested in providing colleges with valuable information about applicants’ writing skills, but they are also cautious about testing students in one area simply “to send a message to schools or students that it’s important.”

College Board officials believe their mandatory writing section is playing a significant role in encouraging schools to emphasize the importance of bringing students’ skills up to the college level.

“We’re already seeing a payoff from that,” Mr. O’Reilly said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as ACT Admissions Test, Like Rival, Adds Essay, But Makes It Optional

Events

English-Language Learners Webinar The Science of Reading and Multilingual Learners: What Educators Need to Know
Join experts in reading science and multilingual literacy to discuss what the latest research means for multilingual learners in classrooms adopting a science of reading-based approach.
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Get a Strong Start to the New School Year
Get insights and actions from Education Week journalists and expert guests on how to start the new school year on strong footing.
Reading & Literacy Webinar A Roadmap to Multisensory Early Literacy Instruction: Accelerate Growth for All Students 
How can you develop key literacy skills with a diverse range of learners? Explore best practices and tips to meet the needs of all students. 

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

Reading & Literacy Opinion When the 'Science of Reading' Goes Too Far
A 3rd grade teacher and a literacy specialist lament time-consuming assessments that do little to promote reading comprehension.
Jessica Hahn & Mia Hood
5 min read
A young child opens a world of literacy in a book
Jorm Sangsorn/iStock/Getty
Reading & Literacy 5 Insights on Getting the ‘Science of Reading’ Into Classrooms
Here are 5 things to know from EdWeek's reporting on the national movement to overhaul reading instruction.
5 min read
First grader Geniss Gibbs practices reading skills at Eastern Elementary School in Washington, N.C., on May 23, 2022.
First grader Geniss Gibbs practices reading skills at Eastern Elementary School in Washington, N.C., in May.
Kate Medley for Education Week
Reading & Literacy Opinion How to Help Students Embrace Reading. Educators Weigh In
To encourage the development of lifelong-reading habits in their students, educators must use both science and art.
3 min read
Surreal Illustration of books flying through the air
Jorm Sangsorn/iStock
Reading & Literacy Tracker Which States Have Passed 'Science of Reading' Laws? What's in Them?
Education Week tracks which states mandate that schools use evidence-based methods to teach young students how to read.
1 min read
Reading interventionist Laura Beth Ross teaches reading skills to first graders at Eastern Elementary in Washington, N.C., on May 23, 2022.
Reading interventionist Laura Beth Ross teaches reading skills to first graders at Eastern Elementary in Washington, N.C., on May 23, 2022.
Kate Medley for Education Week