In 2007 the Idaho Board of Education proposed new high school graduation requirements, including a mandate that juniors take a college entrance exam paid for by the state. Funding of $963,500 was provided by the Legislature in 2011. After bidding, the SAT was selected as “the best test to meet the needs of students as well as the most cost efficient.” A provision for juniors to also take a free PSAT (Practice SAT) was added. The tests have been administered annually since 2012.
The board and lawmakers deserve praise for this initiative promoting college for post-secondary education and professional success in the 21st century job world.
However, the promise of the SAT has not been matched by its results, despite a college board package that includes a free on-line preparation course (used for 1.5 hours by only 40 percent of test takers, according to one survey), retesting for students who don’t meet benchmarks, and evaluation of scores in relation to college and career-readiness skills (also used by few).
According to a 2014 Idaho Statesman article, “SAT Update: Idaho Shows Little Growth in College Readiness,” and a report from the Boise School District, readiness for college work, based on SAT results, has remained at about 30 percent, with a few districts doing better, such (Boise at 46 percent). Yet, endorsed by the state and free, the SAT has erroneously become the college entrance test of choice.
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It might be easy to fault classroom instruction for the low figures, but that blame is misplaced, as college entrance test difficulty and test taking strategies exist apart from daily teaching and learning. Educators familiar with the exams, the SAT in particular, acknowledge that substantial independent preparation, apart from daily school work, is necessary to achieve high scores on either of the college entrance tests.
With that in mind, we might see improved results by allowing students to try the other test, the ACT, as clearly, to date, the SAT mandate has not been successful.
The ACT is known as an achievement test, similar to an end of course exam, that measures learning in core disciplines, using questions formatted more like classroom exams. The SAT, on the other hand, is known as an aptitude test, that requires students to apply concepts and reasoning skills to more unfamiliar mathematical, linguistic, and comprehension problems.
Although no hard data exists to substantiate the claim that the ACT may be easier, there is considerable anecdotal evidence. One online article, “Student Consensus Says ACT Easier than SAT” indicates that those who took both exams found that ACT questions were more straightforward, the test was more about knowledge and less about reasoning, and the readings were easier. Of course, some students may still perform better on the SAT, but without both scores, one cannot know that.
Currently, there are more ACT test takers nationwide, than SAT test takers. They might be on to something. Also, the redesigned SAT and PSAT (coming this year), are significantly more complex, more demanding, and more difficult than their predecessors, requiring higher levels of reasoning, writing, reading and application skills.
With Common Core and SBAC requirements, curriculums are extremely dense and tight, with little time available for dedicated SAT/ACT preparation. Until more schools offer prep courses and workshops, and because most colleges accept either test, the state should say, “You get to choose — ACT, SAT or both?”
David Archibald-Seiffer is a career educator who is the originator of the college entrance test prep course and workshop in the Boise School District