College & Workforce Readiness

As New SAT Looms, Students Opt for Multiple College-Entrance Tests

December 22, 2015 8 min read
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With the rollout of the redesigned SAT coming in March, this year’s high school juniors face a dilemma: Should they take the current SAT, the new SAT, the ACT—or some combination of all three?

Officials from ACT, Inc. and the College Board, which owns the SAT, say they don’t know how many students take both college-entrance exams but each reported that participation is up this fall.

A survey of parents of college applicants by Kaplan Test Prep released in November shows that 43 percent say their child plans to take both the SAT and ACT—often to see which test results in the higher score.

Deciding which exam to take has added a layer of pressure to what some say is an increasingly stressful college search process.

“It’s not been an easy choice at all,” said Sarina Hahn, a junior at Northampton High School in Northampton, Mass. Feeling that there were too many unknowns with the new SAT, Hahn decided to squeeze her test prep into the fall to take the more-familiar SAT in December and January before it is revamped.

“I’m hoping from the two runs I’ll get a score that is good enough. If not, I’ll go to the ACT, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” said Hahn. “There is so much out there regarding the old SAT and tutors who know how to approach that test that it just seemed like it made the most sense.”

Shifting Landscape

Each year, nearly 4 million students take at least one of the two college-entrance exams. Some expect the ACT, which is now the more popular exam, will benefit this year as students like Hahn wait to see how the first administration of the new SAT goes.

“A number of school districts are saying to their juniors: ‘Just take the ACT’,” said Phil Trout, the president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “Kids have the freedom to choose, and I know of schools where counselors are advising students to let someone else be the guinea pig for the new SAT.”

The new SAT is designed to be more straightforward and students should feel confident taking it because it focuses on the skills that are most important for college success, said Stacy Caldwell, the College Board’s vice president for college-readiness assessments.

“This is exactly the work that [students] have been working on in high school,” she said. “We’ve long said the best preparation for the SAT is taking the right rigorous courses. With the redesign, that’s even more true.”

Among the changes coming to the SAT:

  • The new composite score will range from 400-1600 rather than 600-2400.
  • There will be no penalties for wrong answers, and students will have four answer choices instead of five.
  • The essay section will be optional.
  • Vocabulary will be more familiar, and
  • Calculators will only be permitted in some sections.

The new Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, offered for the first time in October, was intended to be a preview of the new SAT. Scores and individualized feedback will be sent to students through a new interactive portal that can be used in their free online SAT test prep, added Caldwell.

To ramp up outreach, the New York City-based nonprofit has hosted webinars for counselors, presented at conferences, and distributed materials to districts and students. While awareness of the changes dropped off after the initial announcement two years ago, the level of interest has picked up again, said Caldwell.

Regional Differences

Just what college-entrance exam students take—and the advice offered to them—may depend on whom they ask, and where they live. This spring, 19 states will offer the ACT free, and six states and the District of Columbia will give the SAT free to all juniors—driving college-entrance exam patterns by location.

Take Missouri, where the ACT will be administered to all juniors in April. Sarah Dix, a school counselor at Hillsboro High School in Hillsboro, Mo., said she anticipates only a few juniors will travel 50 miles to the closest SAT test site this year. There has not been a big push to tell students here about the new SAT and test prep for the ACT will be offered during the school day, said Dix.

For years, Michigan has primarily been an ACT state, but this spring the SAT will be given free statewide. After years of teachers folding ACT test prep-type questions into high school classes, many juniors are nervous about the switch, said Erica Empie, a school counselor at Hartland High School in Hartland, Mich. “Now all of a sudden this is the year they would be [taking the ACT] and everything is changing for them,” said Empie.

In this transition year, a lot of Hartland students will choose to take the ACT on their own, in addition to the SAT given for free at their schools. “This year’s juniors are in an unfortunate situation,” said Empie, adding that she believes the bulk of the educators were caught off guard by the change.

After years of students primarily taking the SAT, the Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter High School in Boston recently switched to preparing students to take the ACT, although the school does not administer either test.

“When they look at the [ACT] questions, they seem more straightforward to them,” said Doreen Kelly-Carney, a college counselor, of her students at Pacific Rim, which is mostly low-income and includes many first-generation college students. A few students will take the SAT and ACT, but the school dropped the PSAT this year and counselors are not pushing kids to take more tests than necessary.

Range of Advice

This year’s juniors are in a unique position to have three exam choices, so Jeff Fuller, the director of student recruitment at the University of Houston suggests students sit for each of them to see where they score the best.

“After the spring, it won’t be an option. So take advantage, and do it now while it’s available,” said Fuller, who is also a past president of the NACAC. He advises students to check with the universities where they plan to apply to learn about institutional preferences for tests.

Officials at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., will accept scores from the ACT or either version of the SAT.

“Some students will be more comfortable with the old SAT because they will be able to talk to their friends about the test, while others will find the new test to their liking,” said Kent Rinehart, the dean of admissions. The 6,500-student college is test optional, and about 30 percent of applicants don’t submit any scores.

“Students need to exhale and relax a bit,” said Rinehart, emphasizing that applicants’ academic records are more important than test scores. “Most colleges look at three-and-a-half years of work in high school, not three-and-a-half hours on a Saturday morning.”

Marie Bigham, a school counselor at Isidore Newman School, an independent pre-K-12 school in New Orleans, says advising students this year has been “tricky” but after taking some practice tests, she recommends they focus on one exam.

“I don’t want students to feed the beast by giving the College Board or ACT any more money than is necessary,” she said. “For the parent who suggests a student needs to take all three, I think that’s an epic waste of time.”

Still, some students aiming for the most-selective schools will likely take more than one exam. Bigham tries to provide some perspective: “We try to soft-pedal the anxiety of it.”

Juniors face a choice not only about which exam to take, but how many times. The ACT and the College Board report that about half of students take the same exam twice—typically once in their junior year and once as seniors.

Preparing for New Exams

The ACT has long been regarded as a curriculum-based test compared to the SAT, which is seen as an aptitude or reasoning test. Many expect the redesign will make the two tests more similar, and the College Board was driven, in part, by a hope of regaining market share.

While the new SAT aims to level the playing field and be less coachable, students are still investing time and money in test prep.

Since the College Board began offering free online test preparation in a partnership with the Khan Academy in June, more than 660,000 users logged on to the site and completed 15 million practice items. “The focus of the test prep is on core academic skills needed to be successful on the SAT and in high school and college,” said the College Board’s Caldwell. “Rather than it being about coaching tricks or ways to beat the test, what it focuses on is building core academic skills.”

When parents at Hartland High in Michigan ask Empie about test prep for the new SAT, she steers them to the Khan Academy website. “We are pushing it hard,” she said. “I love that free price tag and that idea that they take the PSAT score and give more tailored work.”

Kaplan Test Prep has adapted its SAT program, and officials said there has been a significant increase in students taking the new practice tests. Michael Boothroyd, the executive director of college admissions programs for Kaplan, said students can benefit from going over the test ahead of time.

“Everything about the SAT is different. The test is unlike the others—in content, scoring, the calculator policy—and the PSAT has given a taste of that,” said Boothroyd. “You can’t go into this test cold. You need to understand each section. You need strong methods.”

In September, ACT, Inc. made subtle changes to its college-entrance exam—modifying the writing section and adding STEM, career-readiness, and English/language arts scores. It offers free practice tests online, and in December, ACT, Inc. introduced an updated online prep service for a fee, with waivers available for low-income students.

“Once students take a look at the ACT, their comfort level increases,” said Paul Weeks, the senior vice president of client relations for the ACT. Still, Weeks says the best prep for ACT is taking rigorous coursework in high school.

Along with the ACT and SAT changes, the class of 2017 will also experience changes in the federal financial aid application timetable as families will be allowed to submit prior year income-tax records. Fuller notes this makes it even more important to students to stay on top of deadlines and varying policies at the colleges they are considering.

Added Sarina of Northampton: “It’s definitely an interesting time to be a junior. There is a lot of shifting going on.”

Coverage of the implementation of college- and career-ready standards and the use of personalized learning is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 06, 2016 edition of Education Week as As New SAT Looms, Anxious Students Ramp Up Testing


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