Test Wars

For one brief moment, after years of fear and loathing, America seemed ready to make peace with the SAT. When the University of California several years ago threatened to treat the test like a bad batch of cafeteria food and tell applicants not to buy it, the College Board junked the bewildering analogy questions (warthogs are to pigs as politicians are to what?), created a writing section (including producing an essay), added tougher math questions and more reading analysis--and had everybody talking about the new-and-improved SAT.

Then the first students to take SAT: The Sequel were seen stumbling out of the testing centers as if they had just run a marathon, and all the happy talk ended. The students, their parents, their counselors and the $1,000-per-course SAT prep companies said the new test was too long and exhausting, with the three hours and 45 minutes stretching to five hours with breaks and instructions. And it got worse. Nobody is sure how, but moisture in some SAT answer sheets caused pencil marks to bleed or fade, producing more than 5,000 tests with the wrong scores. Even after that was fixed, several universities reported a sharp drop in their applicants' average scores, which many attributed to exhaustion, and more colleges told applicants they would no longer have to take the SAT.

All of which stoked interest in the ACT, the SAT's less famous and less feared rival based in Iowa City, Iowa. The shorter test is now becoming a welcome alternative for many high schoolers who no longer see a need to endure the usual SAT trauma. "I think the ACT is a true player in the college-admissions game these days," says Robyn Lady, until recently a college counselor at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. Although most Jefferson students still take the SAT, the number of ACTs there has tripled in the last two years. It's a shift that, if it continues, could change the balance of entrance-test power, since the Fairfax County, Va., magnet sends more kids to the Ivy League than almost any other U.S. school.

At New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., another high-performing public school, the ACT has taken the lead over the SAT, and the gap is widening. Senior Melissa Koehler, with dreams of becoming a pediatric cardiologist, has taken the ACT three times. She says she loves that unlike the SAT, the ACT requires her to send only her best scores to colleges. "I felt ill in the middle of the first time taking the test," she says. "It is lucky that my first mediocre score will not follow me through the application process."

Robin Prywes, a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md., says she prefers the ACT because it does not penalize students for guessing and has questions that relate more directly to subjects taught in school. The SAT used to be accepted by more colleges than the ACT, but Wake Forest University announced in May it would begin accepting the ACT, leaving only one school in the country, Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., that bars the SAT adversary. Five states have adopted the ACT as the standard public-high-school assessment, and all students must take it.

The SAT, with a maximum 2400 points, and the ACT, with a maximum 36 points, are scored differently, but otherwise are no more different from each other than American football differs from the Canadian version. Students usually do equally well on each. The SAT's new 25-minute essay is required, while the ACT's essay is optional. The SAT is three hours and 45 minutes long. The comparable ACT is three hours and 25 minutes. The SAT has three sections: critical reading, math and writing. The ACT has math, science, reading and English sections, plus optional writing. The ACT with the writing test costs $43, more than the SAT's $41.50, but the ACT is only $29 without the writing section.

Several high-school guidance counselors say they assume the ACT, with 1.2 million test takers in the class of 2005 compared with 1.5 million for the SAT, will eventually catch up, in part because so many educators are advising their students to try both. Wendy Andreen, counselor at Memorial Senior High School in Houston--where the SAT has been supreme--says she tells students every year they should take both tests to be safe, and many are beginning to listen, with ACTs up 18 percent since 2002. Deb Shaver, director of admissions at Smith College, says counselors are steering students to the ACT "because there is less hysteria surrounding the ACTs, and students feel less stressed about taking the test."

The mistakes made in the scoring of the October 2005 SAT by Pearson Educational Measurement, the College Board's subcontractor, have not been forgotten, counselors say. The SAT suffered from damaging news stories as details of the errors came out bit by bit. In the end, 4,411 students had scores reported to colleges that were lower than they actually earned and had to be corrected; 17 percent of the corrections were for more than 40 points. College Board president Gaston Caperton apologized, saying the mishap "brings humility, and humility makes us more aware, empathetic and respectful of others."

But many counselors, who often complain about the New York City-based nonprofit's influence over their students' futures, say they have their doubts. "I think the College Board sees this as a purely technical problem that they can solve through purely technical means," says Scott White, a counselor at Montclair (N.J.) High School. "I don't think they appreciate the damage that was done to their already shaky credibility."

When College Board statisticians predicted a five-point average decline in math and critical-reading scores on the new SAT, many counselors and admissions officers questioned the official explanation for the drop. James Montoya, a College Board vice president, says fewer students were retaking the test, perhaps in reaction to a 46 percent test-fee increase when the new, longer test was inaugurated. "We believe this decrease in repeat test taking may account for some of the average-score decline," he says. "The average student who retests increases his or her combined critical-reading/math scores by approximately 30 points." That does not impress Lady, the counselor at Jefferson. "I think the test is entirely too long and that fatigue is definitely affecting student performance," she says.

Still, the new SAT essay--25 minutes to fill a maximum of two pages--seems to have been quickly accepted by most of the country's leading universities. A College Board survey of 351 admissions deans found that 74 percent planned to use the new writing-section results in their admissions process. But that has not ended the grumbling about the new test's being longer and more draining than traffic school at the DMV. Noting that the letters SAT once stood for Scholastic Aptitude Tests but no longer officially stand for anything, Bethesda, Md., SAT tutor Ned Johnson suggests a new title: "Stupefying and Tiring." He's telling his young clients to get a good night's sleep for several days before the test so they'll be alert at the 7:45 a.m. start and to take high-energy snacks to eat during bathroom breaks.

If the new SAT loses support, the ACT may benefit, or perhaps a third alternative--not taking either test--will gain ground. FairTest, a Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit organization that opposes overreliance on testing, has a list of 700 four-year colleges and universities it says do not use the SAT or the ACT to make decisions about a significant number of applicants. Some critics have suggested that dropping the SAT and ACT is just a marketing ploy by less prestigious schools that crave attention, but many highly regarded schools have chosen to eliminate both tests from their admissions calculus. At a standing-room-only panel of the New Jersey Association for College Admission Counseling recently, a Drew University official said president Robert Weisbuch was so eager to drop the SAT that he ruled against a staff request for another year of study.

Before it dropped its SAT or ACT requirement for good students in 2003, Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., worried about the risks, according to president Laura Skandera Trombley. Would students admitted without the SAT prove unequal to the school's academic demands? Instead, applications are up 48 percent, and the grades of students who arrived without the SAT or ACT are fine.

The SAT, born in 1926, remains the focus of much of the anxiety in the college-admissions process, and most schools show little sign of ending their dependence on it. But choice has been increasingly fashionable in American education, and for today's finicky consumers, the SAT may be finally showing its age and losing the cachet that once made it the test everyone most loved to hate.