ACT rises in popularity in Tam District, recent data shows

Matthew Ross

Students in the Tamalpais Union High School District (TUHSD) are leaning toward the ACT rather than the SAT as their college entrance exam of choice, data from recent years suggests. On average, students are also scoring higher on the ACT as each year passes.

Superintendent Laurie Kimbrel sent a letter to the district community last month which discussed this trend.

In 2010, 375 students in the TUHSD took the ACT, while 458 students took it in 2014.

“There has been a steady increase in ACT takers for the past ten years,” said Leslie Roberts, College and Career Specialist at Tam High School, in an email interview. “In the last two years, more students took the ACT than the SAT, nationwide,” she said.

In fact, earlier this year, the College Board made public their plans to redesign the SAT. The new test will bare resemblance to the current ACT, Roberts said.

For many years, students did not have a choice, they were told to take one of the two tests based solely on the location of their high school.

For students in the TUHSD and across the West Coast, this test was most often the SAT.

Today, colleges accept both tests as equivalents, said Bruce Reed, a founder and the Northern California head of Compass Education Group, a college admissions test preparation service.

He added that students now feel comfortable with the fact that each test is weighted with the same degree of importance when it comes to college admissions and no longer consider the ACT as a backup to the SAT.

“It’s not just that students are taking the ACT because they’re worried that they won’t do well on the SAT. They’re actually taking the ACT by choice, and I think that’s helping to push that average score up a little bit,” Reed said.

Many experts suggest that the characteristics of the ACT, specifically its connection to the curriculum students learn in school, may be at least partially responsible for its growth in test takers.

“The  ACT is tied to curriculum,” said Redwood College and Career Specialist Paula Vantrease. “I believe that’s one of the reasons why it’s gaining popularity because it really focuses on what students have learned in school as opposed to a reasoning test, which is what the SAT is.”

The curriculum-based style of the ACT has played a role in its growth, Reed said, because a test on subjects previously studied in school has a greater appeal to many students than questions that test students’ ability to reason beyond the curriculum base.

“The format of the ACT has always been more familiar to students, so it reflects more closely to the kind of things high school students experience,” he said.

Vantrease added that students may also elect to take the ACT because of its science section, a subject completely absent from the SAT. If a student is more science-oriented, it can make all the difference in choosing which test to take, Vantrease said.

Additionally, the SAT penalizes students for wrong answers, while the ACT does not. Lisa Neumaier, College and Career Specialist at Drake High School, said that when students consider which test to take, this might be another positive aspect of the ACT.

Senior Jacob Zazzeron said he decided to take the ACT because he felt more comfortable being tested on what he had already been taught. The ACT’s science section was also a factor in his decision.

“The ACT has a stronger focus on things that we’re learning in school, and it’s generally more applicable to a high schooler’s curriculum,” Zazzeron said. “It’s a better representation of what kids are learning in school.”

Despite the fact that TUHSD students are leaning in favor of the ACT, the SAT still remains the more popular test of the two in California, according to Reed, though he acknowledges the growth of the ACT.

“In the last five years or so, I’ve witnessed a dramatic increase in its popularity,” Reed said.

Students and their families are now becoming more aware of the ACT, and that it is an attractive alternative to the SAT, according to Reed.

But Reed said the data showing an increase in ACT scores is not all that staggering.

“It’s important to note that these averages are pretty stable. The  numbers are up, but they’re up rather minimally,” he said.