SAT vs. ACT (credit: New York Times)
Before we answer this question, let’s look at the SAT testing landscape:
1) In 2012, 1,664,479 students took the SAT, a 66% increase from 1986.
2) During the same period, 1,666,017 students took the ACT, a 128% increase from 1986.
3) According to a Princeton Review representative quoted by the New York Times, approximately 47% of students prep for or take both tests, but ACT test takers are slowly outnumbering SAT test takers.
4) According to the College Board, 47% of SAT test takers in 2013 scored below 1550, the benchmark score that increases the likelihood of finishing college in 5 years with a B minus average.
5) A report commissioned by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) “suggests that average gains as a result of commercial test preparation are in the neighborhood of 30 points on the SAT and less than one point on the ACT, substantially lower than gains marketed by test preparation companies.” The same report “also indicates that some colleges and universities may make inappropriate distinctions among applications based on small differences in admission test scores, making even minimal test score gains potentially important in those decisions.”
6) According to some estimates, the SAT and ACT test prep market in the US is valued at between 500 million to a billion dollars and growing.
So the short answer to the question—Is the SAT an Accurate Predictor of College Success?–is yes, but only if your SAT score is greater than 1550, the benchmark score that increases the likelihood of finishing college within five years with a B minus average. As a company that spends lots of time doing in-house research to determine why some students ace the SAT or ACT and others—with otherwise similar skills—do not, we were initially excited to review the College Board’s latest report titled “2013 SAT Report on College & Career Readiness” which you can access here:
But our initial enthusiasm quickly dissipated as we looked at the larger picture. The results of the report are shocking, but not surprising to anyone who teaches in the K-12 or college/university context. High school teachers tell us that the focus on standardized testing in public schools is making it difficult for them to teach critical reading and thinking, composition, and research skills. College professors complain that first-year students are poorly prepared for their English and General Education classes, supporting the College Board’s findings, which show that “only 43 percent of SAT takers in the class of 2013 met the SAT College and Career Readiness Benchmark and that this percentage has remained virtually unchanged during the last five years.”
So here’s our data analysis to bring out the complexity of the picture:
If 53% of the SAT test takers are scoring lower than College Board’s benchmark for college success, then approximately 880,000 students (out of 1,664,479) are not scoring at levels that demonstrate college readiness. In addition, if we assume that at least half the total SAT test takers enroll in test prep courses, then we ought to question the quality of the test prep since more than half the test takers score lower than the benchmark score, as is cited in the College Board report. No one reason can bring out the complexity of this lack of college preparedness. Research shows again and again that first-year students are more likely to feel intellectually and emotionally disoriented and anxious in college if they do not possess the skills necessary for college success. We also know that most of the SAT prep programs offer large-group or online classes, neither one of which can be said to substantially increase students’ scores.
What our own data suggests, and what we continue to hear from all our tutors—many of whom are also high school and college instructors—is that smaller classes or individual tutoring is much more effective than the one-size-fits-all model that is the primary method of choice for large commercial test-prep companies.
Admission into elite colleges has become a multi-billion dollar industry because parents have convinced themselves that where their kid goes to college will influence what kind of job he or she will get, and to a certain degree, they are right because the media certainly amplifies that assumption. According to an article in the New York Times, “There is also a real shift in the behavior of top high school students, with many more choosing to work toward impressive scores on both tests…At Harvard, the University of Virginia and the University of California, Los Angeles, about a quarter of applicants for last year’s freshman class submitted ACT as well as SAT scores.”
For now, here’s what we advise our clients because as a small company we possess the time, flexibility, and rigorous research to paint the evolving picture of college prep and admissions:
1) Your SAT or ACT score will continue to matter, so prep for it, because even a slight increase can improve your chances of admission to your school of choice.
2) Ask yourself how you learn best: individually, in a small-group setting, or a large class environment. There is anecdotal evidence that individual tutoring and small-group classes lead to the highest score improvements.
3) There is some evidence that excelling at both the SAT and ACT will make you a slightly more attractive candidate than someone who has taken only one of the tests.