Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Another Look at SAT and ACT Issues

We've been getting a new wave of questions about the relative merits of the SAT versus ACT exams and about what to do when a student has difficulties with both of these tests. A quick review of our blog history (which can be accessed on the right side of this page) reveals that we haven't written in depth about these subjects for over two years. So, at the risk of repeating ourselves, we want to summarize the key issues that students and their families need to know.

First, there are differences between these two standardized college admissions tests. As we have noted, each was designed to measure somewhat different kinds of college readiness. The SAT exam was designed to measure "aptitude," that elusive, inherent quality that was once -- but no longer -- thought to correlate with college performance. The ACT is more focused on the body of knowledge that a student would generally need to have accumulated during high school to be successful in college. We have looked at these differences in more depth before and still stick by our recommendation that for students who are undecided about which test to take, trying a few practice exams from both testing companies may be the best way to decide.

Second, we want to remind students and parents that testing accommodations -- extended time, use of a computer for essays, and other accommodations that are designed to mirror the kinds of support that students with learning or attention issues may have been receiving in high school and which are necessary for such students to properly demonstrate their abilities -- require lots of time to arrange. The testing organizations need documentation, sometimes more than one round of documents, to make their determinations, and families want to leave time to appeal from a denial of accommodations. Students who need accommodations for these tests should apply at least several months in advance to allow time for this process to work.

We always urge students to check out the sections of the websites for the SAT and ACT that outline the procedures and generally available accommodations for students with learning and other challenges for the most up to date information, but to make sure that they allow plenty of time to complete the accommodations application. Students planning to take the PSAT or PLAN, the early versions of the two tests, should keep in mind that taking such pre-tests without accommodations may have a negative impact on the decision of the testing organizations to provide accommodations. Once you have shown that you can take the tests without accommodations, even if you could do much better when using the accommodations you are used to getting in high school, you have weakened your argument that such accommodations are truly necessary.

Finally, students who decide that neither of these tests will work for them, or who have taken one or both of these tests and have done poorly, need not lose heart. As we have recommended in the past, the nonprofit organization FairTest lists numerous colleges, many of them nationally recognized, that do not require standardized tests for admission.

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