Getting an Education - College Entrance Examinations
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Most students who wish to enter colleges and universities in the United States must take either the SAT (once known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, then the Scholastic Assessment Test, now simply the SAT I) or the American College Test (ACT) as part of their admission requirements. The ACT is a curriculum-based achievement test, measuring proficiency in reading, math, English, and science, while the SAT is the primary admissions test to measure a student's mathematical and verbal reasoning ability in a way intended to assess readiness for college. Students who take these tests usually plan to continue their education beyond high school; therefore, these tests do not profile all high school students.
More Are Taking SAT and ACT Exams, with Mixed Results
The number of students who take both the SAT and the ACT has grown steadily. In 2003 1.5 million students took the SAT. This represented an increase of 33.8% over the number who took the test in 1975 (996,000). The number of students taking the ACT increased over the same period, from 714,000 in 1975 to 1.2 million in 2003, an increase of 40.5%. College admissions officers reported significant increases in the number of applicants as well, despite the declining number of high school graduates since 1980 (Tim Goral, "Intelligent Admissions: With College Applications Reaching Record Levels, IHEs Are Using Technology to Work Smarter and More Efficiently," University Business, March 2003). Students were either applying to a larger number of schools or, as the increased numbers taking the SAT and ACT suggested, more high school graduates were pursuing a college education.
Performance on the SAT is measured on a scale of two hundred to eight hundred for each of two sections, with the established average score being around five hundred for each. According to 2003 College-Bound Seniors, a report from the College Board Summary Reporting Service, over the period from 1972 to 2003, average verbal scores on the SAT declined from 537 to 507. The results for the math portion of the SAT, however, dropped and then rebounded over the same period, from 509 in 1972 to 519 in 2003. Average ACT scores also improved; in 1970 the average composite ACT score was 19.9, and in 2003 the average composite score was 20.8.
Characteristics of Test Takers
GENDER. More women than men took the tests in 2003—53.6% of those who took the SAT and 56% taking the ACT were women. More women than men have taken the SAT since the 1970s as well. Men scored higher on both the verbal and the math portions of the SAT test in 2003 (average scores of 512 and 537, respectively) compared with women (503 in each section) (2003 Profile of College-Bound Seniors, College Entrance Examination Board, 2003). The average composite ACT score was 21 for males and 20.8 for females. Women scored higher than men on the English and reading sections of the ACT, while men scored higher on the mathematics and science sections (National Data Release, ACT, August 20, 2003, http://act.org/news/releases/2003/8-20-03.html).
PLANNED AREAS OF STUDY AND FUTURE CAREERS. The favorite intended areas of study or future career choice among those who took the SAT in order of preference were health-related (16%), business (13%), and social science/history (10%) (2003 Profile of College-Bound Seniors). Areas in which students taking the ACT hoped to pursue future studies were similar to those reported for takers of the SAT. But in an August 20, 2003, press release from ACT—"College-Bound Students'Academic Skills at Odds with Career Plans"—Richard L. Ferguson, ACT's chief executive officer, stated that while the top planned college major was health sciences, only a quarter (25%) of ACT test-takers reached the college readiness benchmark on the science test.
RACIAL AND ETHNIC DIFFERENCES. Despite improvements in the scores of minority students, they lagged behind those of white students. In 2003 whites scored a mean of 529 on verbal and 534 on math on the SAT. African-Americans scored an average of 431 on verbal and 426 on math, the lowest average scores of any racial or ethnic group. Mexican-Americans scored an average of 448 on verbal and 457 on math; Puerto Ricans scored 456 on verbal and 453 on math; and other Hispanics scored 457 on verbal and 464 on math. Native Americans and Alaska Natives scored 480 on verbal and 482 on math, and Asians and Pacific Islanders scored an average of 508 on verbal and 575 on math (2003 Profile of College-Bound Seniors).
Although average scores for all racial and ethnic groups except for Asians fell below scores of whites, the College Board reported some progress from 1992 to 2002. During that period average scores for African-Americans increased by ten points, scores for American Indians/Alaska Natives by nineteen points, and scores for Asians/Pacific Islanders by thirty-two points. While scores of Puerto Rican students showed a jump of twenty-six points, scores for other students of Hispanic origin generally showed no change ("Strong SAT Math Score Gains for Almost All Racial/Ethnic Groups between 1993 and 2003," 2003 Profile of College-Bound Seniors). However, the College Board noted that gaps between high school grade-point averages of white and nonwhite students actually increased between 1993 and 2003 ("Most Gaps between High School GPAs of White and Nonwhite Students Have Increased," 2003 Profile of College-Bound Seniors).
According to the ACT's Web site (http://www.act.org/news/releases/2003/8-20-03.html [accessed January 17, 2005]), results on the ACT in 2003 showed that African-American students scored an average of 16.9, Native Americans/Alaska Natives scored an average of 18.7, non-Hispanic whites scored an average of 21.7, and Asian-Americans scored an average of 21.8. Puerto Ricans earned an average score of 19, while Mexican-Americans earned an average of 18.2. In "ACT Scores Hold Steady in 2003," Richard L. Ferguson noted, "Our research has shown that far too many African-American students are not being adequately prepared for college. They are less likely than others to take rigorous, college-preparatory courses, and they often don't receive the information and guidance they need to properly plan for college." ACT data showed that fewer minority test-takers had taken the core college-preparatory coursework, and that groups that had taken more core coursework, such as non-Hispanic whites and Asian-Americans, tended to score higher on the ACT.
Controversy over the SAT
In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the SAT came under fire. One of the most notable critics of the SAT was University of California President Richard Atkinson, who argued that the test did not add much information to the overall picture of a student's academic performance. Atkinson believed the SAT II tests, which test knowledge in specific subject areas, were a more useful tool for college admissions officers than the SAT I.
In response to Atkinson's criticisms, the College Board announced numerous changes to the SAT. Changes implemented in 1994 included non-multiple-choice questions in the math section; the removal of antonyms and a greater emphasis on reading in the verbal section; and permitting the use of calculators during testing. March 2005 changes included an expansion of the math section to cover Algebra II as well as Algebra I and Geometry; the addition of a new writing section containing grammar questions and an essay; and a change in name for the verbal section to critical reading and the removal of analogies from that section.