Recently the new president of the College Board announced his organization’s intention to make substantive changes to the SAT. The overall purpose of the changes – which so far have only been described in broad-brush terms – is to align the test more comprehensively with the evolving high current academic environment and the preparatory needs of students for college success.

Why is the College Board choosing this time to announce changes? One reason is certainly that its new president genuinely feels that the test can be improved and wants to address what he feels are its current shortcomings, as he has publically stated on prior occasions.

The SAT has always been dynamic in response to educational standards, high school course material and other factors. However, the test was revamped as recently as 2005. Changing it again now is potentially risky, in that it may be “off-putting to the biggest stakeholders involved – the students” who are trying to prepare for it. According to the director of the Veritas Prep test prep service: “Students would rather prepare for a test that has been consistent for many years, rather than prepare for a brand new game. The College Board could be shooting itself in the foot by revamping the SAT again, which would likely result in even more students choosing to take the ACT exam.”

So why the urgency to change the SAT now? Most likely because, as Mr. Patel alludes, the SAT has been steadily losing market share to the rival ACT test for years. More than 1.66 million students in the class of 2012 took the SAT – the most ever. But in 2012 more students took the ACT than the SAT for the first time.

According to the public education director at FairTest, an organization that is openly critical of many aspects of standardized testing, the SAT may be losing ground to the ACT because the latter is perceived as more “consumer-friendly” among students. He cites that:

  • The ACT “writing” test is optional, so you can save money and prep time if the schools you’re applying to don’t require that test.
  • There’s no point deduction for wrong answers on the ACT, and thus no penalty and no stress for guessing. The SAT, conversely, puts the onus on students to work with a “guessing strategy.”
  • The ACT’s content is more closely liked to a typical high school curriculum than the SAT’s.
  • The College Board has endured far more negative scrutiny in the media in recent years than the ACT. (FairTest says it gets ten times the number of media calls about SAT issues versus the ACT.)

Further, the ACT may be marketing its product more effectively at the state level. It is now a supplement to or replacement for high school exit exams in nine states, and thus is taken by almost 100% of students in those states; versus just one such state for the SAT. For example, North Carolina, a state where the SAT has long been the more popular of the two tests, is poised to include the ACT in its state assessment system.

Owing to the need for the SAT to sell to state assessment systems more effectively, some experts feel that the SAT may come to look more like the SAT. This is ironic in the sense that the ACT (an “achievement test”) arose in 1959 as a response to the SAT (an “aptitude test”).

Perhaps students are more comfortable being tested on what they actually know, versus what their aptitude might be. Both approaches have over time garnered supporters and opponents but neither has won out as clearly a better predictor of success in college.