Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Last word on exam: Illinois switches to SAT

The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) has confirmed that Illinois, which has offered the ACT to Illinois high school juniors for 15 years, is switching to the SAT. The change was announced in late 2015 and finalized, after a protest by the ACT over the procurement process was denied on Feb. 11.

According to ISBE, the decision was based on the board’s wanting to “ensure that all Illinois students, particularly our low-income students, continue to be provided with a high-quality college entrance exam that is accepted by all higher education institutions in Illinois.”

The procurement process decision also included alignment to Illinois Learning Standards, validity and reliability, readiness of training for educators and parents, opportunities for student preparation and practice, reporting options, and customer support.

This is a major shift for Illinois students. In 2015, 157,047 Illinois students took the ACT. Fewer than 6,000 students took the SAT, and they likely took the ACT, too. Of that 6,000, 3,963 were public school students.

Illinois follows Michigan in the switch. Over the years, regional favoritism was part of the conventional wisdom surrounding ACT vs. SAT. East Coast colleges and universities traditionally relied on the SAT, the Midwest favored the ACT, and western schools used both. Today, most schools accept and value the ACT and SAT equally.

Schools cited the differences in content between the two tests this way: the SAT primarily assesses reasoning skills, whereas the ACT focuses on a student’s knowledge. For example, the English and reading sections of the ACT primarily test grammar, syntax, and structure. English in the standard SAT was geared toward reading comprehension and, famously, vocabulary. However, the College Board, the non-profit distributor of the SAT, will be rolling out a new version of the SAT this spring, with changes to format, timing, and scoring. The SAT will have more critical thinking and analysis and will not penalize for wrong answers.

Which tests Illinois school districts will offer in 2016 – and who will pay – is unclear or district-dependent. College entrance exam funding was not part of the Illinois education budget approved last summer. Some districts have completed test preparation for the ACT. A few Illinois school districts have said they will offer the ACT as they had previously, but at each district’s rather than the state’s expense.

As always, students can take either test at their own expense at pre-determined dates and locations throughout the year. Most colleges and universities will accept either test, some prefer one or the other, some request specific subject tests, and others do not require a standardized test at all.