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College Admissions Tests - The ACT, The SAT, Test Scores and Their Relationship to Admissions Selectivity

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The ACT Assessment and SAT are the most popular college entrance tests administered in the United States.


The ACT Assessment, formerly called the American College Test, is a standardized examination required by many colleges and universities in the United States for admission to their undergraduate degree programs. The test was developed in 1959 to measure the academic abilities of prospective college students and provided an alternative to the SAT. The ACT is a two-hour and fifty-five-minute multiple-choice exam that measures English, mathematics, reading, and science reasoning skills. Students are also required to complete two questionnaires that cover the courses they have taken, their grades and activities, and a standardized interest inventory. The test battery includes four parts: (1) a 45-minute, 75-item English test; (2) a 60-minute, 60-item mathematics test; (3) a 35-minute, 40-item reading test; and (4) a 35-minute, 40-item science reasoning test. Each of the tests is scored on a scale from one to thirty-six; the four scores are combined into a composite score of one to thirty-six. Most students who take the test score within the range of seventeen to twenty-three.

Most students take the ACT during the spring of their junior year or at the beginning of their senior year. Students are allowed to take the test more than once, and most colleges and universities count the highest score reported. Students may designate the colleges and universities to which their scores should be reported.


The SAT, formerly called the Scholastic Aptitude Test and later the Scholastic Assessment Test, is an examination that is required by some of the higher education institutions within the United States for admission to their undergraduate degree programs. The SAT dates to the early 1900s when Ivy League schools formed the College Entrance Examination Board (College Board). The purpose of the board was to simplify the application process for students who were required to take a different entrance exam for each college they applied to. The SAT was designed as a standardized entrance exam for the College Board that required students to write out answers and compose essays.

In the early 1990s the test was redesigned to measure verbal and mathematical reasoning through multiple-choice questions. The revised SAT includes two separate divisions of the exam: the SAT I, which is a general test of verbal and math ability, and the SAT II, which tests knowledge in specialized subjects chosen by the student. The verbal and math portion of the test devotes seventy-five minutes to the verbal section and sixty minutes to the mathematics section. The verbal portion comprises three kinds of questions, as noted by Alexandra Beatty and colleagues in 1998: (1) analogy questions, which assess "knowledge of the meaning of words," ability to see a relationship in a pair of words, and the ability to recognize a similar or parallel relationship; (2) sentence completion questions, which assess "knowledge of the meaning of words" and "ability to understand how the different parts of a sentence fit logically together"; and (3) critical reading questions, which assess "ability to read and think carefully about several reading passages" (p. 18).

The mathematics section of the test assesses how well the students understand mathematics, how well they can apply what is known to new situations, and how well they are able to use the knowledge they have acquired to solve difficult mathematical problems. Each of the sections generates a score on a scale of 200 to 800, with the combined scores ranging from 400 to 1,600. Nationwide, average scores on both the verbal and math sections of the test are approximately 500.

Test Scores and Their Relationship to Admissions Selectivity

There is some misunderstanding pertaining to the validity and importance of college entrance test scores. While test scores weigh heavily in admissions decisions, they are not the only variable that is considered in admitting a student to even the most selective institution of higher learning. Most colleges and universities use the test scores as a means of assessing a candidate for admission. Other criteria included in this assessment are the high school grade point average (GPA), rank in class, record of extracurricular and service activities, letters of recommendation, applicant's essay, evidence of persistence, and interviews, which assist the college or university in determining the applicant's maturity, determination, personality, and character. High school GPAs are considered a "soft" measure because grading standards range as widely as they do in college. Nevertheless, GPAs are considered more important than test scores because they are inclusive of several years of performance, not just a few hours of testing.

The combination of high school GPAs and ACT or SAT test scores is very useful in determining admissions because it provides different kinds of information about the academic performance of students. Test scores and GPAs provide reliable and efficient information that is very useful to many admissions counselors. Test scores were not designed, however, to be a comprehensive approach to all factors that influence success in college. Admissions personnel rely as much on high school GPAs or class rank as they do on test scores, and the predictor of college success is higher for both numbers together than for either one alone.

The ACT and the SAT can be very helpful in assisting colleges in admissions selectivity when there are more applicants than the college can accept. The colleges believe that the tests are one excellent means of helping them to make a better selection of the candidates who apply. For instance, colleges that specialize in the liberal arts and humanities would seek students with higher scores in verbal aptitude and lower scores in mathematics aptitude, whereas engineering colleges would seek students with high scores in mathematics aptitude and lower scores in verbal aptitude.

Over the years, college entrance tests have improved considerably. Colleges and universities have determined that students who do well on the tests have the ability to succeed in college. These tests, however, are indicators only of a student's ability to do college work; they cannot measure perseverance and interest in learning.


NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL. STEERING COMMITTEE FOR THE WORKSHOP ON HIGHER EDUCATION ADMISSIONS. 1998. Myths and Tradeoffs: The Role of Tests in Undergraduate Admissions, ed. Alexandra Beatty, M.R.C. Greenwood, and Robert L. Linn. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

OWEN, DAVID. 1999. None of the Above: The Truth behind the SATs, revised edition. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

WECHSLER, LOUIS K.; BLUM, MARTIN; and FRIEDMAN, SIDNEY. 1967. College Entrance Examinations. New York: Barnes and Noble.


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