Reading & Literacy

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

By Sean Cavanagh — February 01, 2005 4 min read
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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

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