ACT vs. SAT. Who wins?
The debate over whether college-bound high school students should take the ACT or SAT, or both, rages on. Adding fuel to the ﬁre in this debate is the relatively recent development of the SAT overtaking the ACT — in terms of how many students take it. In 2018, for the ﬁrst time in 7 years, more students took the SAT than the ACT. This development has many students, and their parents, in a quandary about which test to take, and whether or not to take both. Has the fact that the SAT has surpassed the ACT — in terms of test takers — signaled a concurrent shift among colleges and universities toward favoring the SAT over the ACT? The simple answer is: no.
At the real risk of being cliche, the reason that more students overall in the country are taking the SAT than the ACT is simple: It’s just business. The College Board, which owns and administers the SAT, has been making great strides toward making the SAT more available to students. And, as a result, there has been a huge increase in the amount of students taking the SAT since 2012, and particularly since March of 2016 when the SAT unveiled its revamped test. As stated in an October 23, 2018 article in the Washington Post, the SAT has “…pushed to expand its market share in recent years by revising the test and entering into deals with numerous states and school systems to give students the exam.”
As a result of this SAT initiative, the number of students taking the SAT — if not SAT scores — is soaring. Two states in particular, Illinois and Colorado, played a major role in the growth of the SAT. In Illinois “…SAT (test takers) spiked from from 12,402 in the class of 2017, to 145,919 in the class of 2018…,” and in Colorado “…58,790 in the class of 2018 took the SAT, 10 times the previous year,” according to the Post article. There have also been signiﬁcant gains for the SAT in California, New York, and Florida, while the SAT has long been the go-to test in DC, Maryland, and Virginia, the article states.
Interestingly, though, despite that surge in students taking the SAT, there are still problems with the test, scores have been rather unpredictable, and though the College Board’s revamp of the test did take care of some of the test’s past biases — it’s still biased toward middle class and above, socioeconomically advantaged students who have generally greater exposure to 18th and 19th Century Modern English passages, and Mathematics questions that overall are more diﬃcult on a conceptual level – than comparable Math questions seen on the ACT. As a result, in spite of its greater availability, with free SATs oﬀered in a growing number of schools, along with the PSAT practice tests — even students who have done signiﬁcant preparation for the SAT in many cases are not doing that well on the test, leaving many in a dilemma.
All this leads back to the question, “Should you take the ACT, or the SAT, or both?” To answer that, you have to take into account that students overall score higher on the ACT, percentile wise, than they do on the SAT. For example, a score that is considered good on the SAT is an 1180, out of 1600, or above — which is in the 73rd percentile. On the ACT, however, a score of 24 would be in the 74th percentile, yet is considered only an average score on the ACT. Moving up the ranks a bit, a 28 and up is considered a strong score on the ACT, and is in the 89th percentile. Whereas on the SAT, a strong score is considered a 1340 or above, which is in the 90th percentile. Interestingly, a 1340 on the SAT is in the 90th percentile, out of a total of 1600 — which means in relative terms that a very small amount of students score at or above a 1340 on the SAT. Having said all of that, here is my advice. If a student can score an 1180 or above on the SAT they should take it and submit their score to colleges. The reason? Colleges know that the SAT is a more rigorous test than the ACT. If you score less than an 1180 on the SAT, a student shouldn’t submit it to colleges. For students who only plan on taking the SAT because it is oﬀered free in school — they should change their plans and take the ACT. For economically disadvantaged students, such as those who qualify for reduced or free lunch, the ACT can be taken twice for free. The reason students should take the ACT, regardless of whether or not they take or submit their SAT score to colleges, is that the ACT is an easier test to perform well on, once a student has learned strategies for managing the time on the particularly time constrained Reading and Science portions of the test.
So, taking the SAT is an option. Whereas, all college-bound students should take the ACT. As to the question of whether a student should submit their SAT score instead of their ACT score, I can say that after 12 years of preparing nearly 200 students for these tests, I have never seen a student score higher — percentile wise — on the SAT than the ACT, for students who took both tests. If you have had that experience, please contact me! I would love to hear from you:)
Charlie Matthews is a graduate of the University of Michigan, and holds a Masters in Education from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is a 25-year educator, with over 12 years experience preparing students for the ACT and SAT, and recently launched an online platform for his test preparation initiative: wisepreponline.com