Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

In Race for Test-Takers, ACT Outscores SAT—for Now

May 24, 2017 | Corrected: May 30, 2017 6 min read

Corrected: An earlier version of this article misstated Paul Weeks’ title. He is senior vice president for client relations at ACT.

The University of Pennsylvania reached a milestone of sorts with its fall entering class: For the first time, more students had taken the ACT than the SAT.

The changeover at the Ivy League university in Philadelphia reflects a more general shift taking place in the college-entrance-exam marketplace.

“The momentum has clearly been on the ACT side,” said Eric Furda, Penn’s admissions dean.

In fact, the ACT has been the most popular test used to predict college performance since 2012. Last year, more than 2.09 million (or 64 percent of graduates from the high school class of 2016) took the ACT compared with the SAT’s 1.64 million. Some believe the ACT will remain dominant, since more states give it for free during the school day, and the jittery students who abandoned the SAT during its 2016 redesign will be hard to win back.

Others see the market recalibrating and both testing organizations on solid footing, since the ACT and SAT tests can be used as accountability measures under the Every Student Succeeds Act, and are preferred in some states over the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and Smarter Balanced assessments.

The College Board is not down for the count, though. The organization has ramped up its marketing, recently won state contracts in previous ACT strongholds, added free online test prep and enhanced its suite of assessments in the lower grades to build a pipeline of future clients for its college-admissions tests.

Looking to 2017

Testing volume from the class of 2017 is eagerly anticipated to see which exam is gaining traction. In the meantime, choice often benefits consumers as ACT Inc. and the College Board compete for business.

Paul Weeks, the senior vice president for client relations at ACT, expects continued growth in the testing company’s upcoming report in September.

Test-Taking Trends, 1986-2016


Source: ACT Inc. and College Board

“ACT has a long history of being a curriculum-referenced test. It’s very appropriate to use because you can align it with standards and inform instruction,” he said. “Over time, it’s become better understood.”

In a statement, the College Board said it anticipates the class of 2017 will be the biggest SAT cohort in history. Through the January administration, nearly 1.8 million students from this year’s graduating class will have taken either the old or new SAT at least once.

“The SAT is bouncing back nicely,” said Adam Ingersoll, a co-founder and principal of Compass Education Group, a California-based test-prep company whose students opted for the ACT 8 to 1 over the SAT last year. He believes the ACT will still draw more students this year but more likely at a ratio of 2 to 1.

See Also

Education Week‘s latest annual state survey reveals subtle shifts this year in the national testing landscape.

What Tests Does Each State Require?

After introducing the original Scholastic Aptitude Test in 1926 (now simply the SAT), the New York City-based College Board owned the market for years. The Iowa City, Iowa-based ACT Inc. launched its test more than 30 years later, in 1959. What tests students took largely depended on where they lived—the SAT is strongest on the coasts and the ACT in the Midwest and the South. But those patterns are changing, nudged by state and district policies.

ACT was the early winner in recent battles for state and district testing contracts. Now, 16 states give the ACT free to students state-wide and another four fund ACT test-taking on a district-optional basis.

In 2014-15, the College Board administered its test during the school day, free to students, in three states and the District of Columbia. This year, it has expanded to nine states and the District of Columbia, having flipped contracts in three states. The SAT is also given in large districts, such as New York City. Not all states that have contracts require students to take the tests.

While test changes have created anxiety for students, Lee Weiss, the vice president of college-admission programs for Kaplan Test Prep, said the two exams are now similar, equally accepted by colleges, and the market is now shifting back. “If you look at trends from 2000 to 2016, ACT has really taken over,” he said. “But it will be a horse race this year.”

Accountability vs. Admissions

It was smart business strategy for the College Board and ACT to persuade states to use their brand-name tests for accountability as the public clamors for less testing, but they are not particularly the right fit, said New America’s Elena Silva, the director of preK-12 education policy at the Washington-based education nonprofit. The SAT and ACT were designed to predict students’ likelihood of success in college and don’t necessarily reflect what each state requires they learn before high school graduation.

“I don’t think it’s a move that’s been made necessarily because it’s a better measure of learning,” Silva said. “It’s simply an easier measure and more cost-effective decision.”

In Wisconsin, the state’s official high school test is now the ACT, and students are more motivated because the results can go on their college applications, said Steve Schneider, a counselor at South High School in Sheboygan, Wis.

“In the past, we’ve always tried to encourage kids to do well on the state test, but the scores didn’t mean anything,” he added.

The assessment landscape remains fluid because when contracts expire, states regularly ask for bids, and business can switch. For example, after years as an ACT state, Illinois began SAT-testing all juniors this spring.

Jennifer Norrell, an assistant superintendent in the Bloom Township district in Chicago Heights, which piloted the SAT in 2016, said teachers and students are more engaged with the itemized feedback provided with scores.

“The data we get back makes the assessment meaningful,” said Norrell. This year, students created a campaign, “5 Questions Make the Difference,” to incentivize test improvement with fliers, T-shirts, and food trucks.

While many students take the ACT or SAT in school for free, tutors encourage those who can afford it to try a practice test of each to compare scores.

Ideally, students would have a choice of ACT or SAT in school, depending on what’s the best fit for them, said Sheila Quinn, the deputy superintendent of innovation and effectiveness in South Carolina’s education department.

Since 2014, all juniors in the state have been required to take the ACT or ACT WorkKeys for college- and career-readiness accountability, but a bill being considered by legislators now has generic language to give the state more flexibility in choosing a test.

In response to the market flux, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing reports the fastest growth in the past three years in the number of test-optional colleges, which now number 950, according to Robert Schaeffer, its public education director. Studies show high school grades are a stronger predictor than tests of freshman college performance, and students want to be treated as more than a test score by colleges, he said.

Despite the fluctuating landscape, most acknowledge that both the SAT and ACT will likely remain a cornerstone of the college-application process.

“Because people have different ways of grading and comparing students, colleges feel the tests at least give them more of a standard of measure,” said Nancy Beane, the president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “I can’t imagine the tests are just going to go away.”

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Coverage of policy, government and politics, and systems leadership is supported in part a grant from by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, at www.broadfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 24, 2017 edition of Education Week as In the College-Testing Game, ACT Outscores SAT—for Now


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