Taking the test that fits

Colleges, students consider the ACT

August 29, 2004

Taking the test that fits
For generations, taking the SAT has been a rite of passage for New Englanders preparing for college.

The New England roots of the Scholastic Aptitude Tests run deep: An important early champion was Harvard administrator Henry Chauncey, and for decades, nearly all applicants to competitive colleges in the region took the test. Many students never realized that there was another test they could use.

But another option has slowly begun to take hold, even at elite New England colleges: the ACT, formerly known as American College Testing. Long the dominant test for college admissions in the Midwest, the ACT now has a growing toehold in New England.

"I don't have a client for whom I don't recommend the test," said Bob Gilpin, an independent college counselor in Milton.

The SAT remains the dominant test here, and many of those taking the ACT also take the SAT. But for the first time, the ACT's numbers in New England are significant. In Massachusetts, 10 percent of high school seniors took the ACT in 2003, up from 6 percent in 1999. In Connecticut, the proportion of seniors who took the ACT grew from 3 to 7 percent during that period. Other New England states reported similar gains.

With college pressure increasing, students are attracted by the image of the ACT as a more straightforward test that rewards the work they've done in high school, rather than their mental agility on a given day.

In contrast to the SAT, which was designed to sift students by aptitude for college-level work, the ACT is more oriented toward specific course areas, and it measures mastery of English, reading, mathematics, and science.

As a result, many students may do better on the ACT than on the SAT, Gilpin says. Boys tend to do better on the ACT because they are frequently flustered by the verbal esoterica on the SAT, and boys frequently fail in attempts to figure out exactly what a given question means. Girls who are both good readers and good science students "just knock their ACT scores into outer space," he said.

There is no risk to the student in taking the ACT in addition to the SAT, Gilpin said. "It's a no-lose proposition. You don't report the score if it is bad."

Ben S. Melito, who is about to start his senior year at Belmont High School, has already taken the ACT and the SAT and said he thinks his ACT score will help him get into a liberal-arts college. Melito's combined SAT verbal and math score was 1380. His ACT score was 32, the equivalent of 1420 on the SAT.

Melito said he had never heard of the ACT until last year, but he ended up more comfortable with the ACT than the SAT. "The SAT was more concerned with trying to trick you; the questions were more convoluted," he said. "The ACT was what I had actually learned."

Andy Lutz, vice president of research and development at the test-preparation company Princeton Review, said he also encourages students to take both tests.

The ACT is "a better test," Lutz said. Too many SAT questions "are wrapped in layers of obfuscation," he said, and talented students sometimes get tripped up by what he calls "traps" in the SATs. As a result, students prepare for the SAT by learning how to think like the people who create the test. In contrast, Lutz says, his company helps students prepare for the ACT by reviewing and mastering course content.

Not surprisingly, the groups that produce the ACT and SAT are closely watching the developments in New England.

Brian O'Reilly, executive director of SAT Information Services for the College Board, is quick to say that "the SAT is still the dominant test in New England." The SAT has also been growing in the region, although more slowly than the ACT, as more students seek college admission, he said.

At ACT Inc., the Iowa-based organization that produces the test, Jon Erickson, vice president for educational services, called New England "the last frontier" for the ACT and said continued growth is expected. The ACT tends to attract "students who have comfort in the classroom," he said. "What they see is similar to what they do in the classroom.

"The feedback we have is that the students taking the ACT tend to feel more at ease with the test because they can take less of a gamesmanship approach," Erickson said.

Not all counselors agree that students should rush to the ACT. Michael London is president of College Coach, a Newton-based company that offers college counseling to students in the Northeast. He asked several of his counselors about the ACT and received a range of replies, with some encouraging it and others questioning it. London said he agrees that some students benefit from submitting an ACT score. But he cautioned that not everyone benefits and that it "looks weird" to colleges when students do not submit an SAT score. Since that means that most students taking the ACT must also take the SAT, London warned about the impact of preparing for multiple tests.

"You are adding to a process that is already pretty bad," he said. Applicants and parents should also think about "the value they place on their time," he added.

Colleges receiving ACT and SAT scores say students do not hurt their chances by submitting the ACT. At the University of Vermont this year, 3.8 percent of applicants submitted only the ACT, but 12.7 percent submitted both SAT and ACT scores. At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, 10 percent of applicants submitted ACT scores last year, up from 8 percent two years earlier. Most also submitted SAT scores.

The change may be most significant at colleges that allow students to substitute the ACT for three SAT II tests, as is the case at Connecticut College. Of this year's freshmen, 28 percent submitted ACT scores instead of three SAT II scores. The percentage using the ACT option is up from 18 percent two years earlier.

Martha Merrill, dean of admission and financial aid, said she is happy to see students have options. "We want students to put their best foot forward," she said. Part of the popularity of the ACT may be psychological, with students sick of parents who want to boast about their children's 1400 SAT scores, Merrill said. "Society places so much emphasis on the SAT."

by By Scott Jaschik, Globe Correspondent, The Boston Globe

updated: 13 years ago