After taking the SAT twice and the ACT once, South Aiken High School senior Sean Hamlet said he likes the SAT a bit more.
He felt the ACT's large number of questions on different components required instant recall. He found the ACT more challenging, but not so much because of the content.
By the time he got to science at the end of the test, “I had taken three other sections and was exhausted,” said Hamlet. He didn't do as well on the ACT as the SAT, he said, but that's a relative term. Both scores were outstanding.
The key is that he did choose to take both tests. Not too many years ago, students usually picked one and at that time, the SAT got the nod by a wide range. While the ACT has been the favored on the West Coast, the SAT has long been the exam of choice east of the Mississippi.
But the margin on this side of the nation is shrinking. The SAT has remained about the same in numbers, while ACT participation has grown 25 percent in South Carolina over the last two years. On a scale of one to 36, recent Aiken High School graduates averaged 23.6 – the highest score in the Aiken County School District and among the top scores in the state.
Linda Strojan, the Aiken High senior counselor, makes her students take both exams and compare the results. Either way, she wants them to take both again, even twice more.
“The kids are doing much better on the ACT than the SAT,” she said.
“The ACT requires quick recall, and if you're good on 'Jeopardy,' then you're probably going to do well on the test.”
Tracy McBride, South Aiken's senior counselor, agreed that students should take both tests. Each promotes a college culture for students at all levels.
Another factor is economic: South Carolina offers the Palmetto and Life Scholarships. Opportunities for receiving either one has become very competitive, McBride said. Good grades still may not be high enough to met the requirements based on class rank. The best way to offset that is a good SAT or ACT score.
The exams function differently, said Randy Stowe, the Aiken County School District's director of administration. The ACT is widely considered an achievement test.
That means the exam has questions and content “that students would normally see in a high school class, preparing students for college,” Stowe said via email. He cited an example where ACT has science questions, which can determine if the students have the background in science needed to be successful in a college science classroom.
The SAT is more of an aptitude test, Stowe said. The questions and content are not those that might be found in a high school class, but can determine if a students has the aptitude to be successful in college.
Both the SAT and the ACT are changing and will become more aligned with Common Core academic standards, Stowe said. Ironically, the S.C. General Assembly rejected full implementation of Common Core this year and will replace it with an as-yet undetermined state-generated set of standards. As the SAT changes emerge, that exam will resemble the ACT as an achievement test.
For the time being, however, “ACT is a better test of the material,” said Stowe. “A dozen states across the country are giving the ACT to every student.”
Actually, one or the other could fill that role as early as next spring. Earlier this year, the S.C. General Assembly eliminated the High School Assessment Program, more commonly known as the exit exam.
The approach of passing a test as a graduation requirement is gone. However, a new assessment is required statewide, and bids from companies are coming in – as well as from the national SAT and ACT organizations. Every junior will take either or another assessment test every year.
Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard's education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001. He is a native of Walterboro and majored in journalism at the University of Georgia.