Addressing Readers’ Questions About the SAT and ACT

GUIDANCE OFFICE October 18, 2012, The New York Times
Guidance Office | Ask SAT and ACT Officials About Standardized Tests
Q. and A.: SAT and ACT

Jon Erickson of the ACT, and Kathryn Juric of the SAT, are answering select reader questions about standardized tests.

Questions for the SAT’s Top Cop | Dec. 6, 2011
Before juniors and seniors sharpen their No. 2 pencils and take a shot — or perhaps another shot — at the SAT and ACT this fall, we’d like to take a moment to turn the tables.

Starting Thursday, The Choice is inviting all college-bound test takers to ask questions of the multiple-choice testmakers.

Kathryn Juric, the vice president of the SAT program, and Jon Erickson, the president of the education division at the ACT, have agreed to answer your questions about standardized tests in the blog’s Guidance Office, a forum for college applicants and their families seeking expert advice.

The Choice will host these panelists in a moderated Q. and A. session that begins next week. We hope you will contribute questions that will help you and other readers of this blog have a better understanding of each test and, perhaps, ease some anxieties.

To submit a question for the upcoming Q. and A. with Ms. Juric and Mr. Erickson, please use the comment box below. We will accept questions through Oct. 24. The first part of our moderated Q. and A. will be published on Monday.

Read on below or go here
Part 1: Answers to Readers’ Questions About the SAT and ACT

Comparing the SAT and ACT

Readers are grappling over whether to take the SAT, ACT or both. Do colleges and universities prefer one exam over the other, or do the preferences vary based on the type of institution?

— From Roxlet
Mr. Erickson: All accredited American colleges and universities accept scores from either the ACT or the SAT without preference or prejudice. This has been the case for many years. Both organizations provide on their Web sites a table that students and admission officers can use to compare scores on the two tests, and many colleges develop their own similar tables based on their applicants.

Ms. Juric: Today, nearly all four-year undergraduate colleges and universities require a college-entrance exam like the SAT, and even test-optional institutions accept and review SAT scores when submitted as part of a holistic review of a student’s likelihood of success at a particular institution. We believe the SAT measures a student’s ability to apply the skills they have learned in high school, in turn demonstrating to admission counselors their college preparedness. The question of which college entrance exam a college or university prefers is best answered by the admission staff at the colleges and universities to which you are applying, bearing in mind that scores from college entrance exams are just one aspect of your overall application.

What should a student do if she performs better on one exam than the other?

— From Elizabeth Walsh

Mr. Erickson: College is very important, so students should put their best foot forward during the admission process. There are distinct differences between the two tests, and we think it’s a good idea for students to familiarize themselves with these differences before registering to take a test. For example, the ACT’s writing test is optional. In addition, the ACT includes a science test as well as an interest inventory that can help colleges understand more about the student.

If students decide to take both tests, they can usually send both sets of scores without worrying which one is higher. Most colleges will use the highest scores they receive to the advantage of the student. Students should check the particular college’s policies on test scores before making this decision.

Sending both sets of scores can be a good idea for another reason: The more colleges know about a student, the better they can decide if that student is a good fit for their institution and, once a student has been admitted, the better they will understand what they can do to best help that student succeed on campus.

Ms. Juric: We strongly recommend that students take the SAT in the spring of junior year and again in the fall of senior year, as the majority of students who take the SAT twice improve their scores.

For those students who decide to take each test once, we recommend that students use the SAT-ACT Concordance Table. Concordance tables are what college admission officers use to compare SAT and ACT scores.

Unfortunately, many students and educators make the mistake of comparing percentile information from the two tests, which is not an accurate comparison. Percentile ranks should not be used to compare SAT and ACT scores, as the population of test-takers is different, and a higher percentile rank on the ACT may not mean the student’s ACT score is better than his or her SAT score.

It should be noted that the College Board does not support the use of ACT’s Estimated Relationship Table because it compares the SAT composite to the ACT without writing, which is not a valid comparison.

Mr. Erickson, do you agree that it is inaccurate to compare percentile information of each test? How do you respond to the assertion that ACT’s Estimated Relationship Table is not a valid comparison of SAT scores?

— Tanya Abrams, The Choice

Mr. Erickson: It’s important to remember that the ACT and the SAT are different tests that take different approaches to measuring college readiness. ACT provides the Estimated Relationship Table to help students and parents compare the two scores. This table is valuable to students who are applying to colleges that consider all three SAT scores in their admission process. A number of ACT-SAT score concordance tables can be found, not only on each organization’s Web site, but also on individual colleges’ Web sites, which can help a student get a feel for their “best” scores. Ultimately, however, I would suggest that students simply send out whatever scores and profiles they feel best represent themselves — or send out both sets of scores — rather than stressing too much about which scores are higher.


When is it O.K. to guess if you don’t know the answer? Please explain how wrong answers are scored on the PSAT, SAT and ACT.

— From NE mom

Ms. Juric: On the PSAT/NMSQT, the SAT and the SAT subject tests, one-quarter point is deducted for incorrect answers to multiple-choice questions, while no points are deducted if the answer is left blank. It’s also important to remember that no points are deducted for incorrect answers to the grid-in responses in the mathematics section of the PSAT/NMSQT and SAT.

Since no points are deducted for leaving an answer blank, random guessing is not recommended on the PSAT/NMSQT, SAT or SAT subject tests. If you cannot eliminate any wrong answers, it is best to skip the question. If you can eliminate one or more wrong answers, you should consider making an educated guess from the remaining choices.

Mr. Erickson: On the ACT, students are not penalized for incorrect answers; ACT scores are calculated based only on the number of questions answered correctly. On test day, ACT test supervisors encourage students to make sure they answer every question, because there is no penalty for incorrect answers on our exam. If they don’t know the correct answer, they would be best served to eliminate the possible answers they know to be incorrect and then make their best choice from the remaining answers.

The Writing Section

What is the rationale behind the writing sections of the ACT and SAT, if some colleges and universities do not consider that section?

— From Susan Morris and Jane

Mr. Erickson: The rationale behind ACT’s decision to add a writing test was to provide colleges with another piece of information on which to make effective admission and placement decisions. The ACT writing test was developed to reflect the type of writing found in rigorous high school courses and expected of students entering first-year college composition courses.

We chose to make the ACT writing test optional because the majority of colleges don’t require writing scores for admission. Many colleges already have a means of assessing writing, like personal essays and institution-specific writing tests, which are established and working well.

We wanted to provide a flexible, student-focused solution that would also work for colleges and universities. Our optional approach gives colleges the freedom to require the tests that best meet their informational needs. It also allows students the flexibility to decide whether or not to take the writing test based on the requirements of the institutions they hope to attend.

Ms. Juric: The College Board believes passionately that writing is a critical skill for success in college, no matter what field of study the student is pursuing.

When students send official SAT score reports, scores for all three sections of the SAT are included regardless of the institution’s specific admission requirements. In addition to being able to review the overall writing section score, colleges and universities also have the ability to download and review each applicant’s SAT essay. This is valuable because it gives admissions officers the opportunity to understand how a student writes in a timed, proctored setting without input from teachers, parents or other resources.

We believe that the SAT writing section is valuable to all colleges and universities because it provides admission officers with greater insight into a student’s ability to communicate by measuring his or her ability to develop and express ideas clearly and effectively.


Our next question is from Laurie Fendrich, a self-identified professor who is “exasperated by continually encountering students who have earned high SAT verbal scores who nevertheless write essays marked by poor grammar, weak vocabulary, poor punctuation, lack of structure, organization and clear argumentation, and – worst of all – wordiness.” Could you explain how the written portions of your exams are graded, and whether there is a correlation between strong performance on the verbal portion of the exam and excellent writing skills?

— From Laurie Fendrich

Ms. Juric: As an organization of educators, we share Prof. Fendrich’s concerns about student writing ability, which is why we added writing to the SAT. While the essay is the most widely discussed aspect of the writing section, multiple-choice questions account for 70 percent of the student’s score and the essay accounts for 30 percent. The multiple-choice section measures a student’s ability to use language in a clear, consistent manner and to improve a piece of writing through revision and editing; the essay measures a student’s ability to think through an issue and articulate a point of view.

Recently published research examining the relationship between SAT essay scores and first-year English G.P.A. (FY EngGPA) and first-year G.P.A. (FYGPA) showed that the SAT essay has a positive relationship with both FY EngGPA and FYGPA. This relationship remains even when students are grouped by academic ability. In other words, within all groups of similarly academically able students, as essay scores increase, so too does the mean FY EngGPA.

SAT essays are scored by educators whose qualifications include a bachelor’s degree and at least three years of experience teaching high school or college-level courses that require writing. These “essay readers” go through a rigorous online training process to ensure they understand how to score the essays in a holistic manner according to College Board standards. Each essay is evaluated for the total impression it creates, and readers are trained to take into account such aspects of essay analysis as complexity of thought, substantiality of development, and facility with language.

Given that mean SAT writing section scores have declined each year since 2006, it is clear that we must do a better job preparing high school students for the challenges of college-level writing.

Mr. Erickson: The ACT writing test is designed to measure a student’s ability to make and articulate judgments, develop and sustain a position, organize and present ideas logically, and communicate clearly in writing. Students’ essays are graded using a holistic approach that looks at the overall impression of the essay’s total effect on the reader.

Aspects like punctuation and grammar can certainly impact students’ writing test scores when they affect students’ ability to communicate ideas clearly. However, our holistic scoring techniques help balance the impact of those aspects against many other important skills.

ACT’s writing score takes into account the impact of a variety of qualities, like the complexity of the student’s ideas, the style and word choice used to communicate those ideas, and how well those ideas are supported and explained. The combined effect of all these writing skills drives our overall evaluation of a student’s ability to clearly express complex ideas in writing.

Our research has shown that the combination of the ACT English test score and the ACT writing test score provides the best prediction of a student’s success in first-year college English composition courses. Looking at the whole array of language, writing, and critical thinking skills that are measured by the ACT gives us the best picture of a student’s overall writing ability.

Part 2 Answers to Readers’ Questions about the SAT and ACT

Test-Optional Colleges and the Value of Standardized Tests

A number of colleges and universities have become test-optional, meaning that they no longer require the SAT or ACT to be considered for admission. Some would argue that such a policy is rooted in the idea that standardized tests do a poor job of showing the merits of the whole student, or that they discriminate against some minorities and students with limited resources.

What is your response to criticism that these exams are more a reflection of affluence and privilege than they are a predictor of college success?

— From Annie, Hank, Elizabeth Sweet, Jane, and Jennifer Perton

Ms. Juric: We believe that the correlation between SAT performance and family income is not a result of issues inherent to the test itself, but rather educational inequality more broadly. A recent study in Psychological Science showed that the SAT and high school grade point average have essentially the same predictive value of first-year college G.P.A. — after controlling for socioeconomic status.

A 2002 report from the National Center for Education Statistics suggests that high school graduation rates, college enrollment rates and bachelor’s degree attainment rates all vary by socioeconomic factors, including family income and parental education.

We believe it is important to look at a number of factors – including SAT scores, high school G.P.A., strength of high school curriculum, rigor of coursework completed, etc. – when assessing a student’s likelihood for college success. Research consistently shows that the SAT, when combined with high school G.P.A., is the best predictor of first-year college success for all students – regardless of demographic, geographic or socioeconomic differences.

According to a recent report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling, admission test scores ranked as the third-most important factor in the admission decision, behind only grades in college prep courses and strength of curriculum. Nearly all four-year undergraduate colleges and universities continue to require entrance exam scores, and many test-optional colleges limit those policies to applicants who meet other requirements.

Mr. Erickson: We understand that sometimes there is confusion about what standardized tests are designed to do. The ACT is a curriculum-based achievement exam, which means it’s designed to measure what a student has learned in science, math, reading and English classes throughout his or her time in school. We continually update our exam to make sure it reflects what is taught in America’s schools and deemed important for success in college courses.

Our research findings, as well as those of others, consistently show that ACT scores are an excellent predictor of how well a student will perform in the first year of college, as are high school grades. The most effective way to determine if students are ready for college, however, is by looking at their ACT scores and high school grades combined.

The ACT measures the knowledge and skills a student has accumulated over time. ACT has compiled volumes of research data that show the importance of those skills in college and career success. Of course, we realize that success in college is dependent on a variety of factors. Some students don’t have equal access to high-quality teaching and curricula in their K-12 years. But with opportunity and support, those students can achieve to high levels in college and beyond. The ACT is designed to help students and colleges understand each student’s readiness and the appropriate steps needed to help that student succeed.

At ACT, we want every student to have an equal opportunity to show what they have learned, which is why we work diligently to ensure that our exam meets the highest levels of fairness. Every ACT test question is evaluated for fairness and sensitivity through research and through multiple reviewers — both internal and external to ACT — who come from a wide range of social and ethnic backgrounds and cultural experiences.

The Tutor Effect

You have both stated that combining SAT or ACT scores with high school grades is the best way to predict college success. But what about those families who can’t afford private tutors? One reader, Utsav, wonders whether your exams are in fact “a measure of the amount of resources available to a student rather than the academic capabilities of said student.” Lauren, a self-described “former SAT verbal and writing tutor,” says that she spent a lot of time covering vocabulary and test-taking “tricks” that could “drastically” increase a student’s score.

In what ways might a student’s score in fact be a reflection of his or her access to tutors? And, given the socioeconomic disparities that you’ve mentioned, how might a student of limited resources prove that he is college-ready, if his test scores are lower than a peer who has been tutored?

— From Utsav, Lauren

Ms. Juric: We cannot emphasize enough that the key to success on the SAT is not paid test-prep or private tutoring. The students who perform best on the SAT are those who complete a core curriculum and pursue the most rigorous course work available in their high school, and this holds true for students at every family income level.

Students should not be discouraged if they cannot afford private tutoring or paid test-prep courses. Independent research has shown that the score gains realized through paid test prep are about the same as the score gains realized from taking a college entrance exam a second time. The idea that there are “tricks” that must be mastered is a myth perpetuated by those who seek to profit from test-prep services.

The SAT Web site has information to help students familiarize themselves with the SAT, and a number of our SAT practice materials — including test-taking tips for each section of the exam, a full-length practice test, and hundreds of additional practice questions — are available free. We also offer a “test-day simulator” that gives students a sense of what to expect on test day. Students who use these resources to familiarize themselves with the test and who have been working hard and challenging themselves in the classroom should feel confident on test day.

Mr. Erickson: Our own research and that of others have shown that short-term test-prep activities tend to have only minimal impact on ACT scores compared to long-term activities like taking rigorous course work in school. Tutoring that focuses on helping a student learn more skills and knowledge in core subject areas could certainly help improve that student’s performance on the ACT, but that tends to be a longer-term proposition.

The ACT is a curriculum-based achievement exam that measures the body of knowledge that students have learned throughout their schooling. The best way to prepare for the ACT is to take challenging courses in school, study hard and learn the material covered. It’s not access to expensive test-prep programs that helps students from higher-income settings perform better on tests, it’s access to higher-quality schools and more effective teachers with greater resources at their disposal.

Encouragingly, our data show that students who take the recommended core curriculum of courses in high school — four years of English and three years each of math (algebra and higher), science, and social studies — perform significantly better than those who take less than this core regardless of their background. In our country, with access to technology and the Internet in schools and public libraries, those seeking to learn can do so at no cost.

As for test-taking tips and skills, there are many free resources available, including ACT’s student Web site. We also encourage students to take advantage of school resources, especially counselors, and summer learning opportunities offered by many community and four-year colleges.

To pose a question to Ms. Juric and Mr. Erickson, please use the original post soliciting questions or the comments box. We will accept questions through Oct. 24.

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