Pop quiz: What can simultaneously be classified as a new venture for the College Board, a business opportunity for test preparation companies and a little scary for high school students?
If you answered “the new SAT,” you’re correct.
The nonprofit College Board is expected to debut its revamped college readiness exam next month with fewer trick questions, a heavier emphasis on reading and a new scoring system among other changes designed to measure skills more relevant to students’ futures. But in a twist frustrating the College Board, the tutoring industry has already begun to benefit from the switch. High schoolers and anxious parents are increasingly seeking preparatory services for the rival ACT instead of opting for an unfamiliar version of the classic standardized test.
“We’re having record sales, but it’s due more to the ACT than the SAT,” said Karl Schellscheidt, the president of ePrep of Princeton, New Jersey. “I think people aren’t sure what to make of the new test. They may not think their tutors are up to speed with the new test. They don’t want their kids to be the guinea pigs.”
— Ryan Lowery (@ryanmlowery) February 1, 2016
The SAT and ACT have been battling for years to be high schoolers’ top choice. In many aspects, they’re similar: Both are widely accepted by college and university admissions officers as indicators of academic readiness, both cost about the same and both take about the same amount of time to complete. But they’ve historically diverged when it comes to content. The SAT was formerly known as an aptitude test while the ACT was known as an achievement exam. More differences: The SAT had a guessing penalty, and the ACT had a science section.
The ACT first dislodged the SAT from what had been its perennial No. 1 spot in 2012, and it’s been the more popular assessment ever since. Last year, 1.7 million students from the class of 2015 took the SAT compared to 1.9 million who took the ACT, corporate annual reports show.
In 2014, amid an ongoing national debate about the value of standardized testing that led some institutions to eliminate score submissions completely, the College Board announced a makeover of the SAT. Starting March 5, there would be no more complex vocabulary words, no more point deductions for wrong answers and no more mandatory essay. Scores would be on a 1,600-point scale. The reading section would be evidence-based.
Some celebrated the SAT changes, which marked the exam’s second update since 2000. But now that the overhauled test is nearly here, executives in the test prep industry said they’re seeing students lean more toward the ACT. The ACT is attractive because it’s a known quantity, Schellscheidt said, adding his sales are up 10 percent from this time last year.
Jay Cha, a manager at the tutoring service Ivy Global in New York City, attributes the increased interest in the ACT to simple anxiety.
“In general, students take these exams very seriously, and they’re worried,” he said. “A lot of clients actually think it’s better to take the ACT now simply because there’s not enough information out about the new SAT.”
In recent months, his business has hired more ACT experts and begun to work on an ACT guidebook in response to the demand. However, Cha said, the tutors also have published two editions of a guidebook based on the four full-length practice SAT tests and a 210-page specifications document released by the College Board.
Also in New York City, Kaplan Test Prep has seen 50 percent more business than usual for the February ACT, said Lee Weiss, the vice president of the company’s college admissions program. But customers are also buzzing about the SAT, prompting the company to retrain all its teachers and rewrite its curriculum. Kaplan has announced an #SATprepathon from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. EST Sunday in which students can access free tutoring sessions online.
“What better than a very large test change to be able to educate the market and give students who are two weeks away from the new administration an edge?” Weiss asked.
PowerScore Test Preparation of Charleston, South Carolina, has taken a different tack: It has stopped offering SAT prep classes entirely. Vicki Wood, PowerScore’s director of ACT and SAT curriculum, said the company has suspended its SAT courses until the instructors feel confident teaching strategies for the new version of the exam. Wood said operations are now focused on the ACT, which she said is generating more questions from customers than ever before.
The SAT courses will likely start back up again in late summer or fall. “We’re willing to sacrifice the money in the short term to benefit the students in the long term,” Wood added.
The College Board itself has rejected the idea that its new test is harder to complete or prepare for than its previous incarnation. Cyndie Schmeiser, the company’s chief of assessment, noted 4 million students already have tried the revised exam in the form of the PSAT given last fall. She said the nonprofit has received overwhelmingly positive feedback from students, teachers and colleges as well as states that have switched from giving all high school juniors the ACT to the SAT.
Schmeiser, who used to work for the ACT, said the College Board is disappointed by tutoring companies that are making the new SAT seem mysterious or difficult to get kids to take their courses.
“There are irresponsible members of the test prep industry that are using fear and confusion to drive people to their services,” she said. “We want the SAT to be open and transparent and clear. It measures what research tells us are essential skills for college readiness.”
The College Board also sells an SAT study guide on its website.
In announcing the SAT makeover in 2014, the College Board also debuted a partnership with Khan Academy, a nonprofit that produces short videos on a variety of subjects. Schmeiser said the skills students are learning there are useful in life, not just for a single exam session.
More than 900,000 students have taken advantage of Khan Academy’s new SAT services since June, according to an email from product lead Annie Ding. She said comparing student interest in services linked to the old exam versus the new one is hard, but the people who visit the SAT help site now tend to spend more time practicing. Khan Academy does not have an ACT prep section.
Among other features like video lessons and study tips, users can import their PSAT results from the College Board and get tailored tutoring for free.
“By helping students quickly figure out precisely which skills need work, students can focus their practice on learning and improving rather than just reviewing things they already know,” Ding said. “And by making official resources available to all students, we send a powerful message that students can control their own learning and performance, and merit — rather than money — is what matters most.”
Schmeiser gave no indication she was concerned about reports the ACT may be surging in popularity, and past SAT administrations have seen fluctuations related to a variety of factors. But data provided by ACT spokesman Ed Colby showed registrations for this academic year were up 3 percent overall from the year before. February sign-ups in particular increased by 7.5 percent. Registration for the next ACT administration, which is scheduled for April, hasn't closed yet.
Colby said he couldn't pinpoint a reason for the upswing.
Joanna Graham, the director of academics at Veritas Prep based in Malibu, California, said in some markets the group’s ACT business has tripled in the past six months as compared to the previous year. But as a 15-year veteran of the standardized testing sector, she predicts the commotion will blow over once students start taking the new SAT and realize it’s just a normal test.
In the interim, Graham urged students and parents not to panic — advice that doubles as a solid test-taking strategy.
“It’s absolutely OK not to have all the answers. At the end of the day, the folks who produce the test don’t even have all the answers,” she said. “Everyone is trying to figure it out at the same time. ... It’s not quite the ‘Chicken Little’ mentality.”