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The SAT-ACT Duel for Supremacy

The school year is finally over, but summer vacation won't be the idyllic time of yore for many high school students. Instead, it will be a season of prepping for either the SAT or the ACT, both of which still determine to a large extent admission to most marquee-name colleges and universities.

Until fairly recently, the SAT totally dominated the field, but the ACT is slowly gaining ground on its rival. The competition pits the College Board, which owns the SAT, against American College Testing, which owns the ACT. The latter has been around only since 1959, while the former was created in 1926. The ACT for many years was most popular in the Midwest and the South ("Scores Stagnate at High Schools," The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 18, 2010). But that is changing. Today, the ACT is growing faster than its rival, not only nationally but also in such SAT strongholds as California ("ACT is to SAT as ... " Los Angeles Times, Sept. 6, 2008).

What is the difference between the two tests, and which one should students take? The ACT says its purpose is to measure classroom achievement, rather than aptitude. But there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the two terms. An aptitude test is designed to predict how well a test taker is likely to perform in a future setting. In contrast, an achievement test is designed to measure the knowledge and skills that a test taker already possesses in a given subject. While scores on both types of tests may be related, they do not necessarily correlate.

As I pointed out in "UnSATisfactory" (Education Week, Jun. 14, 2006), this confusion is reflected in the changes in the name of the SAT over the decades. When psychologist Carl C. Brigham conceived the test, it was called the Scholastic Aptitude Test in the belief that it measured innate ability. In 1994, however, the name was changed to the Scholastic Assessment Test because of concern that the original name was negatively associated with eugenics. Then in 1997, the College Board altered the name again to the SAT, which stands for nothing.

Given this background and the lack of evidence that one test is easier, or that admissions officers look more favorably on one over the other, it's unclear why the ACT has been making such impressive strides. The ACT is slightly less expensive and requires slightly less time to complete, but in light of the high stakes it's unlikely that these factors have anything to do with the choice that students make.

The truth is that both the SAT and the ACT are very much alike in one fundamental respect. Both are carefully designed to engineer score spread between test takers. If either test were loaded up with items that measured material effectively taught in class, scores might be bunched together, making comparisons unsatisfactory. And since both the SAT and the ACT exist to provide evidence that allows test takers to be ranked for the benefit of admissions officers, it's a risk neither wants to run.

In the final analysis, therefore, it's really a matter of going with one's instinct when signing up. But no matter what the outcome on either test, it's important to remember that their predictive value for success in college is questionable. There are far too many other variables involved that can't be accurately measured by any instrument now in existence.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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