Until recently, it would have been heresy, and just plain bad practical advice, to tell a high school junior or senior with college aspirations not to take the SAT, especially if he or she lived on either coast of the United States.

This ritual college admissions test, owned and operated by The College Board and administered by Pearsons, has hit some rocky times though, and now, more than ever, families of college-bound students may want to consider the SAT alternative or not take an admissions test at all.

What happened to cause the mighty SAT to wobble?

The answer is a combination of many factors, some going back several years and others coming to the fore or gaining traction only in the past few months.

If slow and steady wins the race, then we should all keep an eye on the ACT, the SAT alternative administered by the Iowa-based organization of the same name. Rather quietly, the ACT has grown in its usage and, though you would never get a hint of it from national media coverage, nearly as many U.S. high school students (1.2 million) took the ACT in the past academic year, as did those students who took the SAT (1.4 million).

The ACT is the norm in many places around the country, especially in the South and the Midwest. Here in the Washington, DC area though, as well as in Boston, New York, Florida and most parts of the West Coast, the SAT still reigns supreme. And since writers and editors for national media outlets tend to live on one coast or the other, many of those folks may be naturally pre-disposed to think that the ACT means the American Conservatory Theater, as opposed to the nation’s second largest (and gaining rapidly) college admissions test.

While there are some similarities between the ACT and SAT, one of the most important differences is that the ACT is more of a test about what one has learned in school, rather than how one thinks. There are writing sections on both tests, but the ACT writing portion is optional.

Another critical difference between the two tests is that the ACT can be taken multiple times, but then a student can choose to send only the best of the test scores to the college(s) where he or she has applied. Some people think that the SAT operates the same way, but in reality all SAT test scores are sent to colleges, so that admissions officials at the schools are aware of multiple test-taking and the results of each sitting.

It is an oft-told myth that the nation’s most selective schools only want the SAT numbers. In fact, nearly every single college in the U.S. (that includes results from standardized tests as part of its admissions process) will accept scores from both the SAT or ACT.

An increasing practice, it seems, is for a student to actually take both tests. In the event that a student does well on the ACT, but not as well as expected on the SAT, this disparity may be taken into account by an admissions officer. If the situation is reversed, however, and a strong SAT score is accompanied by a poorer than hoped for ACT result, then that wayward ACT score can be held back and not presented to the college or university.

As you may have noticed by the tone of my headline, and the points that I have raised so far, I am growing increasingly skeptical about the SAT, and many colleges are too. Several more East Coast private colleges – selective, but not quite Ivy level, have joined their colleagues and announced that the SAT score – or any standardized test – is no longer a prerequisite component of the college admissions package.

Our skepticism, and that of many others, was compounded last spring when The College Board belatedly revealed that a mistake had been made in the grading of several thousand SAT tests from fall 2005. Not only did this “scoring anomaly,” as The College Board press statement termed it, call into question the admissions decisions that had been made regarding those directly affected by the error, but also those who may have been rejected – or accepted – by a school because of the wrong scores that had attached themselves to competitor applicants.

Everybody makes mistakes, of course, so that was not our issue with The College Board. More troubling was their obfuscation (nice SAT word, huh?) of the facts and their prolonged, and repeated, delays in getting the word out about the issue, and in declaring what they were going to do about it.

Several months later, The College Board has revealed that a number of Advanced Placement or “AP” tests (which they also own and operate) are missing and unaccounted for, throwing again into jeopardy the hard work and accomplishments of young people, through no fault of their own.

So, if forced to provide a short answer to my provocative headline, “Is the SAT obsolete?” we would still say no. But, we do think that long-term College Board arrogance, combined with short-term College Board performance mishaps, together provokes the question “Is the SAT on the ropes?” And the answer to that, by almost any reasonable standard, is a resounding yes. Where the test goes from here is the next chapter to be written, and an interesting story for all current and future college parents to follow.

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