Wednesday, April 8, 2015

SAT or ACT: Which Should Juniors Take?

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

The debate over the new SAT rages on, as both counselors—and, interestingly enough, colleges—debate the merits of what test to take. For the counselors, it’s a question of which test their students should take; for the colleges, it’s a question of which test they’ll accept.

The question of “which test to take” has been with counselors and students for a long time—and the only reason it’s ever discussed is because most students don’t seem to like the answer:

If the goal is for the student to demonstrate their best ability on a standardized test, the best thing to do is to take each test once; evaluate the results on each, and take the one most comfortable to the student a second time.

It turns out that standardized tests are pretty different from each other. They may measure the same body of knowledge, but they go at it in different ways, much like two English teachers have different approaches to teaching the same book.  Since different students respond to different approaches—both in teaching and in testing-- with different degrees of success, it’s important to know which testing approach makes more sense to the student. The best way to do that is to take each test once.

Students don’t like this answer because it costs time and money; not only do they have to pay for two tests, but they have to spend time preparing for two tests, and have to give up an extra Saturday to take the same test. Other students will insist they already know which test they’ll do better on, since their PSAT scores were so good—or, in more cases, so bad.

There’s no question the SAT is designed like the PSAT, but there’s no telling how much students have learned in the six months since they took the PSAT- or how much better they will perform on the SAT, now that they know what the test looks like.  It’s certainly true that taking more than one test will cost more money, but fee waivers are available to students who can demonstrate need—and the chance of scoring higher on one test is well worth an extra few hours of sleep on oneSaturday.

Some critics still feel next year is an exception—since the SAT is new, they argue, it’s better to see how the first few test administrations go, and have juniors just take the ACT.  That approach would make sense, if we knew the updated SAT was going to be harder, or in Swahili—but there’s just as good a chance it will be easier than harder.  If that’s the case, students don’t want to miss that chance, so they should still take both—and if they’re looking for some kind of safety zone, take the old SAT in the start of junior year, before it disappears next winter.

There’s also a question of whether colleges will accept the new SAT, since it’s new and, well, untested.  This uncertainty is exactly the reason why students should take both tests.  If colleges find the new SAT is a little rough around the edges, they’ll review a student’s application based on their ACT scores.  If the new SAT turns out to be great, and it puts the student in a positive light, they will likely evaluate the application using the new SAT scores. 

Students don’t have to wait for colleges to decide; plan to take both tests, and know that’s the best way of making sure you put your best foot forward to colleges. 

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