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, 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.
The answer is a combination of many factors, some going back several years.
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 (1.6 million) took the ACT in the past academic year, as did those students who took the SAT (1.8 million).
Those of you who live in ACT-dominant states, which tend to cluster in the Midwest and mid-South, know of what I write, as the ACT is the norm in many places around the country. 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.
While there are some similarities between the ACT and SAT, one of the most important differences is that the ACT is more 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.
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 appears, is for a student to 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.
My level of skepticism, and that of many others, was raised a few years ago when The College Board belatedly revealed that a mistake had been made in the grading of several thousand SAT tests. 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 my 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.
So, if forced to provide a short answer to my provocative headline, “Is the SAT obsolete?” I would still say no. But, I do think that long-term College Board arrogance, combined with short-term College Board performance mishaps, together compel 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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