Hotel reservations. Long car rides to New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Bridge-and-tunnel traffic on the last weekend in August.
For some high school students in Nassau and Suffolk counties, it’s the reality of taking the first summer SAT exam in four decades — scheduled Aug. 26 at sites across the country.
College Board’s announcement of the August exam date is the latest salvo in the competition between the SAT and the rival ACT, the Iowa-based organization that will administer its initial exam of the 2017-18 season two weeks later.
The college admissions tests are locked in a fight for dominance. In just the past two years, both have been updated and revised, in some ways borrowing concepts from one another so that they bear resemblances not seen before.
Longtime geographical distinctions — historically, the SAT has been taken by more college-bound students on the East and West Coasts; the ACT has been champion of the Midwest and South — have blurred, educators and test-prep counselors said.
Five years ago, the number of seniors taking the ACT nationally surpassed those taking the SAT. In the Class of 2016, 2.1 million seniors sat for the ACT and 1.6 million took the SAT.
Over the past decade in New York, where the SAT has reigned supreme for years, the popularity of the ACT has grown sharply. The number of SAT test-takers statewide in the Class of 2016, however, was more than 148,000 — still more than double that of those taking the ACT.
“Ten years ago, the SAT was considered the more well-respected test, where dazzling results would help you gain admissions to competitive institutions,” said Ed Boland, a former admissions officer at Yale University and Fordham University who lives in Manhattan and works as an educational consultant and author. Now, Boland said, “regional distinctions are disappearing.”
College Board upped the ante in adding its first-ever August test date. The Manhattan-based nonprofit, which sponsors the SAT, posted a notice in late April that registration for the exam was open, and high school guidance counselors and test-prep outfits quickly took notice.
Long Island students’ demand has outstripped supply: Only 10 sites on the Island were designated as test centers for the Aug. 26 exam and all the spaces were snapped up quickly. By comparison, 63 test centers in Nassau and Suffolk are designated for the Oct. 7 administration of the SAT.
So, local students who didn’t snag a seat are planning long car rides and booking hotel rooms to take the test in spots from upstate Mahopac to Maplewood, New Jersey, as well as Pennsylvania and Connecticut. Or, shut out of a test center on the Island, they are deciding simply to go the usual route: Start the school year and sit for the SAT during the crush of the college application process.
The situation of limited August test slots and students hitting the road for far-flung test centers is not limited to Long Island.
James Murphy, director of national outreach for the Princeton Review, said the test-prep company has heard from many students in similar fixes across the country, including Boston, Philadelphia and Seattle.
College Board spokeswoman Jaslee Carayol said student response to the August SAT has been “overwhelmingly positive.”
“We understand that securing facilities and staff during the summer can be a challenge for schools,” she said Friday, referring to sites that serve as SAT test centers. “However, we expect the August administration will have increased interest and capacity in future years.”
Students who are able to find slots still can register by mail through Tuesday, and by phone and online through Aug. 15. In addition to the cost of the test, a $29 late registration fee is charged.
College Board itself emphasized the convenience and added flexibility that an August exam would give students who are contemplating the fall of their senior year and the college application process.
Educators and test-prep experts agreed. The exam comes two months into the summer recess, allowing devotion of study time uncomplicated by high school classes or extracurricular activities, a great advantage for rising seniors. Further, students’ scores will be returned weeks before application deadlines for those seeking admission to colleges under Early Action or Early Decision plans. Early Decision deadlines generally are in November.
Traveling for SAT ‘just too much,’ some say
Charlie Agriogianis, 17, who will be a senior at Malverne High School, is among those going to New Jersey, where he will take three SAT Subject Tests at Queen of Peace High School in North Arlington.
“I was shocked that they would go through all this trouble of creating a summer test date, which people had been asking them to do for some time . . . and most people can’t take advantage of it,” said his mother, Jeanne D’Esposito.
“I have to go out of state just to take an SAT?” asked Jim Donnelly, who will be driving his daughter Sarah, 17, a rising senior at East Rockaway High School, to Perth Amboy, New Jersey, early that Saturday morning.
“I think anybody taking the SAT is nervous to begin with,” Sarah Donnelly said. “And I think it’s a little more stressful if you’re taking it out of state.”
Amy Greenberg, whose son Drew, 17, will stay in a hotel in Livingston, New Jersey, with a parent the night before, said, “It’s frustrating.” Her son, a rising senior at Roslyn High School, has strong scores from taking the SAT previously but is looking to improve his results on the math portion of the test.
Under ideal circumstances — here on Long Island — he could be well-rested, Greenberg said.
“You’re home, you’re in your own bed, you’re having a nice dinner,” she said. Instead, “it’s a Friday night in the summer; they have to sit in rush-hour traffic.”
Some students are staying put. Alexis Lake, a senior at Malverne High School, did not want to travel the distance and plans to take the SAT again in October.
“It was just too much,” said Lake, 17, a forward and center on Malverne’s varsity women’s basketball team and the AAU’s elite Exodus NYC. For her, the August test date was appealing as a way to get her test scores back early, because she hopes to sign with an NCAA basketball program in the fall. “I don’t think I would have done well on this test if we would have done all that.”
For many high school students and their parents, discussion of the SAT and ACT inevitably leads to speculation about how college admissions offices regard the exams and how much of a role the scores play in a student gaining acceptance. Many students take each exam more than once, in a bid to improve their scores, and guidance counselors say they encourage students to take both tests.
At the same time, a growing number of higher education institutions have decided to make the tests optional for applicants. FairTest, a Boston-based organization, estimates there are 980 accredited bachelor’s degree-granting institutions nationwide that don’t require all or many applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores.
“The test at best is a small snapshot of the kinds of talents you need to succeed in college,” said Bob Schaeffer, FairTest’s public education director. Colleges that are ditching the test requirement, in effect, are saying, “We’re going to treat you as more than a score. We’re going to look beyond that scary number and look at your grades, the rigor of the courses you have taken, the quality of your high school, what you’ve done outside the classroom.”
The SAT is far older than its competitor: It began in 1926, while the ACT first was administered in 1959.
For years, ACT battled the perception that top colleges preferred its competitor. Guidance counselors have long fielded parents’ doubts.
“Will Harvard, Yale and Princeton take the test?” Jane Grappone, director of school counseling services in Manhasset, said she was asked. “Right now, they’re really just looked upon as equal alternatives.”
ACT erasing SAT’s lead as students’ top pick
In Manhasset, 201 of 274 graduates of the Class of 2016, or 73 percent, took an ACT exam. By comparison, 133 students, or nearly 49 percent in that class, took the SAT.
But just seven years earlier, the SAT held more weight at Manhasset. In the Class of 2009, 159 out of 188 graduates — or 85 percent — took an SAT, while 103 of 188 graduates — or 55 percent — had taken an ACT.
In Manhasset, which is serving as an SAT testing site for the August exam, Grappone said that officials from College Board requested that it open up 50 more seats, after initially offering 200 spots. The extra seats filled up within the day.
Educators said the ACT, in years past, generally was considered to test students on material pegged to a school’s curriculum, while the SAT was a more predictive test with some “tricky” concepts. Today, they said, the two tests resemble each other more than ever.
The ACT has sections on math, English, reading and science, as well as an optional writing test. The SAT consists of reading, math, writing and language tests, and also offers an optional essay. The ACT was last redesigned in 1989, but the writing portion was revamped in 2015, ACT spokeswoman Tarah DeSousa said.
The SAT underwent a massive redesign, the first major overhaul in 11 years, that debuted with the March 2016 administration. The so-called “SAT words” — questions that plumbed students’ knowledge of vocabulary and definitions — were eliminated. The penalty for guessing was removed. Multiple-choice questions now have four options, not five. And the essay section, required starting in 2005, was made optional.
The numbers of test-takers illustrate trends:
- Nationwide, 2,090,342 seniors in the Class of 2016, or 64 percent, took an ACT test. The figure was up from 2006, when 1,206,455 seniors, or 40 percent of that year’s class, took the exam.
- The SAT was taken by 1,637,589 seniors in the Class of 2016. The figure was up from 2006, when 1,465,744 students took the exam. College Board did not have figures for the percentage of the class that those test-takers represented.
In New York State, SAT continues to dominate, while the ACT has shown significant growth in the past decade.
- In the Class of 2016, the number of ACT test-takers in the state was 60,628, or 29 percent of the graduating class, up from 29,967 seniors in the Class of 2006, or 17 percent of the class.
- The number of students statewide taking an SAT in the Class of 2016 was 148,727, down from 153,518 in the Class of 2006. College Board said that 73 percent of New York’s Class of 2016 had taken the old SAT through January of that year, before the redesigned test debuted.
“The SAT influence in New York was very, very strong,” said Paul Weeks, ACT’s senior vice president for client relations. “The Northeast colleges and universities that were often equated with the most elite universities in our country were long perceived of preferring, if not requiring, the SATs. Overtaking that takes a long time. That’s a culture change.”
Weeks credited the ACT’s surge to a motivated push in the region, including workshops for educators, promoting the test as better aligned with the subjects taught in school districts. “When you talk with a lot of school counselors, teachers and administrators, they found the ACT to be something that students were comfortable with because it reflects the curriculum,” he said.
David Adams, vice president of College Board’s Middle States Regional Office, touted the changes made to the new SAT, calling it “way more applicable” to what students learn in school.
The exam “has for a long time been talked about as having to learn tricks and strategies,” Adams acknowledged. With the revised SAT, “what we wanted to make sure was that kids can focus on their strengths.”
“No longer is there mystery surrounding the SAT,” he said. “Everything is completely there so students and parents and educators know exactly what to focus on to build their academic skills.”
Testing options leveling the playing field
Joan Rosenberg, principal of Jericho High School and a longtime former guidance counselor in the district, said that a decade ago, “it would have been unthinkable not to sit for the SATs for at least once, if not twice.” She said she has seen more students only taking the ACT, calling that trend a “big movement.”
Some administrators and experts said the SAT’s redesign, which primarily affected the Class of 2017, sent tremors through adults and students alike. Tutors rely on practice tests, and they had fewer of those to turn to in readying test-takers.
“I think the uncertainty of the new SAT definitely pushed students and families toward the new ACT,” said Michael Neary, director of guidance of Great Neck North High School.
“For the Class of 2017, they didn’t want to be the guinea pigs. They didn’t want to be the first group taking this test,” said Murphy, of Princeton Review.
He predicted that interest in the SAT will swell after more administrations of the redesigned exam.
“That momentum has started to shift back to the SAT,” Murphy said. “People know it’s safe.”
College Board’s Carayol said that the Class of 2017 was the “largest in history to take the SAT,” and that 1.7 million students nationwide had taken the new SAT as of April.
A push for fairer access to practice tests has emerged as part of the tests’ overhauls. In 2014, College Board announced it was partnering with Khan Academy, a nonprofit educational organization, to offer free practice tests to students. Kaplan Test Prep has partnered with ACT, providing practice materials that are free for low-income students.
The approach “changes the narrative of the student,” said Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy. “It isn’t measuring how smart I am. It’s measuring how much effort I’m willing to put into practice.”
The SAT costs $46, or $60 with the optional essay. The ACT also costs $46, or $62.50 with the optional writing test. Each test charges a late registration fee — $29 for the SAT and $29.50 for the ACT.
Gwyeth Smith Jr., the former director of guidance in the Oyster Bay-East Norwich school district, suggested that students take each college admissions test once, but eventually “put a stake in the ground” and choose one over the other.
“Your test scores will never be the reason you’re accepted to these schools” he said, referring to the highly competitive college admissions process and the large pool of Long Island students. “It could be the reason you don’t get in.”
Allison Nemesure, 15 and a junior at Ward Melville High School, was able to fit the Aug. 26 SAT into her family’s upcoming tour of Northeast colleges. They plan to stay in a hotel in Philadelphia, where she will take the test at Roxborough High School and then visit the University of Pennsylvania. They also may stop at Princeton University in New Jersey.
Taking the test in Philadelphia is “not ideal,” Nemesure said. “But sometimes, you have to shift and learn to deal with the circumstances, and hopefully it’ll be a good experience — and I’ll come out of it with a good score.”
So the rivalry continues. ACT announced earlier this year that it will offer a July exam in 2018, but the exam is not expected to be given in New York State. Last year, the ACT began offering the PreACT, billed as giving 10th-graders a way to practice for the ACT; College Board has long offered the PSAT, which is taken by many high school sophomores and juniors.
Some guidance counselors on the Island said it is standard practice to urge students to sit for both the SAT and ACT. Rosenberg, contemplating the test wars, said the competition is good for students.
“It’s opening up a different world for some of our students that the SAT isn’t the be-all end-all testing mechanism for college admissions,” she said. “I think it levels the playing field when there are options on the table.”
ALLURE OF THE AUGUST SAT
The first-ever August SAT test came as welcome news to high school juniors and seniors, as well as their parents.
Before school starts. “Every SAT and ACT exam has always been during the school year when students are constantly getting pulled in other directions and are bombarded by multiple obligations,” said Jake Berman, owner and instructor of Jake SAT prep, who teaches in Wantagh, Seaford and Rockville Centre.
Scores returned earlier. Scores from the Aug. 26 SAT will be released in mid-September, weeks in advance of November deadlines for colleges that have Early Decision plans and timely for Early Action schools, as well as those that take applications on a rolling basis.
Informs other decisions. More aspects of the admissions process, including financial aid, can be tackled earlier in the school year. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, now is available on Oct. 1 — three months earlier than in the past. That change took effect in fall 2016.
ACT & SAT: BY THE NUMBERS
The ACT and College Board each issue annual reports on test-takers nationally and by state. These figures give a 10-year snapshot for the Class of 2016 and Class of 2006.
Class of 2016
Class of 2006
Class of 2016
Class of 2006
Sources: ACT, College Board