Updated: June 29, 2023

Alesa D.

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The ACT and SAT: Controversial, but Beneficial…Still

Alesa D.

The acronyms "SAT" and "ACT" evoke varied emotions from students, parents, and others with a stake in the college admissions process. Some contend that these norm-referenced tests are culturally biased and invalid predictors of college success. Others argue that these scores are helpful indicators, particularly when considered as one measure among many in assessing students’ potential to be successful in college programs. Few agree that these standardized test scores are a stand-alone measure of student caliber or should be the sole determinant of college admission.

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This range of positions underscores how stakeholders in the college admissions process could benefit from better understanding 1) admissions requirements among institutions of higher learning, 2) what these institutions want standardized tests to measure, 3) what the SAT and ACT endeavor to measure, and 4) whether these tests are reliable and valid in meeting their stated purpose. If SAT and ACT tests are falling short in meeting their purpose, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and the College Board may well be harming the college admissions process and those involved.

SAT and ACT tests have been around for decades, but have evolved little in comparison to the changing demographics of America’s population and transformation in higher education. The SAT took root at the turn of the century, becoming more widely used after President Truman urged that all qualified citizens be afforded the opportunity to attend college regardless of race, income and gender. It is important to note that the President’s intention was to enable a larger majority of society, not just the wealthy and privileged, to acquire knowledge and skills needed to "live rightly and well in a free society”. The ACT emerged in the 1950s as an alternative to the SAT.

The ACT underwent its most significant change recently by incorporating the written essay into its test complement. The ACT also experienced a major milestone this year when all four-year colleges finally agreed to accept its scores in their admissions process. Having traditionally enjoying Midwest vice national patronage, ACT’s broader acceptance among colleges exemplifies how colleges are seeking to attract a more diverse student base rather than constraining opportunity due to regional test-taking preferences. A parallel evolution benefiting the ACT is its use by several states to test high school juniors as a measure of student and school achievement in college-bound mathematics, science, English and writing. Like the SAT II, the ACT measures subject matter competence versus aptitude; as a result, both have encountered less controversy than their aptitude-oriented SAT I counterpart.

Until recently, changes to the SAT have largely been superficial: the original Scholastic Achievement Test was renamed Scholastic Aptitude Test in 1941; when concern arose over its potential use as an intelligence test in 1990, the name changed again to Scholastic Assessment Test. The SAT underwent substantial evolution in 2005: after mounting criticism that its questions were culturally and socio-economically biased, the College Board removed all analogy requirements and overhauled its Reasoning Test. University of California (UC) officials deserve great credit for leading the charge for change; in doing so, they pushed SAT’s testing framework beyond that established for stakeholders of a different era. In further response to the call for change, the College Board and ETS also added written essay requirements.

The responsiveness of the College Board and the ETS to change is encouraging. Their reaction demonstrates that they are mindful of the discourse and seek to remain relevant in as the college admissions process evolves. Yet, even with these changes, controversy continues as to whether the SAT and ACT are valid predictors of college success. Trend analysis conducted by UC officials indicates that, in addition to high school grade point average, SAT II (achievement) scores are statistically significant in predicting college performance. Such is not the case with SAT I (aptitude) scores. The predictive validity of SAT II test scores is also affected much less by differences in socioeconomic background, such as family income and parents’ education, than SAT I aptitude scores. A further advantage of the SAT II test is that students can choose the subject areas in which they consider themselves most proficient and wish to be tested. Notably, even more than the SAT II, UC found the writing test to be the single greatest predictor of college performance.

UC’s research advances the argument that ACT or SAT II scores do serve as valid, reliable predictors of college success, particularly when used in conjunction with high school grade point average. Their continued use in the college admissions process is warranted as a result. The National Academy of Sciences has cautioned that major educational decisions not be based solely on a test score: relevant information about a student's knowledge, skills and background must be considered. For instance, students with high grade point averages and impressive academic aptitude may score poorly on SAT II and ACT tests due to inadequate instruction or opportunity. In these instances, the SAT I may serve an important purpose: if students have an otherwise impressive record but demonstrate poor subject matter mastery, an aptitude indicator may strengthen their case for admission. Placing greater weight on achievement scores, yet considering aptitude scores when beneficial to applicants, may be a reasonable approach to keeping the college admissions process standardized. By contrast, eliminating all standardized scores could yield a more subjective process with even more emotional outcomes.

Educational institutions, students, families and our society share a vested interest in students’ success. Institutions of higher learning must build upon the momentum established by UC and collaboratively establish admissions processes that will yield defensible outcomes fair to all stakeholders involved. Public debate over whether, and how well, ETS and the College Board satisfy the objectives of their customers – students and educational institutions – should also continue. The debate has already prompted much-needed change among organizations that may have grown complacent as they became a growth industry. ETS and the College Board have surely gained a better perspective of the stakes involved: their services significantly impact educational opportunity and sufficiency in America.