Aug 12, 2015

IECs overwhelmingly recommend ACT for Class of 2017

Upcoming changes to the SAT, scheduled to debut in March 2016, are affecting advice independent educational consultants (IECs) give their students about which college entrance exams to take—the “old” SAT, the “redesigned” SAT, or the ACT, according to a survey conducted last weekend of 273 IECs, mostly members of the Higher Educational Consultants Association (HECA) or the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA).

While specific recommendations vary on a case-by-case basis, IECs are in total agreement about one thing:  nearly 100 percent (99.25%) of the IECs surveyed will be recommending that their students in the Class of 2017 register for and take the ACT next year.

In addition, almost three-quarters of those surveyed (71%) will not be recommending the “redesigned” SAT for next year’s juniors.

"The SAT redesign puts students in the Class of 2017 in a difficult position,” explained Calli Christenson, of CLC College Prep Services. “The initially released material seems to indicate a more rigorous exam that will prove challenging for students, even with increased time per question, in comparison to the ACT.  [M]ost students in the class of 2017 will be best served by choosing the known quantity, the ACT."

Despite efforts by the College Board to provide substantial advance information about the new test, counselors are uneasy about the Board’s ability to pull it all together in time for next year’s juniors.  In fact, the vast majority of IECs surveyed (87%) indicated they were changing the advice they ordinarily give students about which college admission exams to take and when.

“For this year only, my preference is the ACT since the new SAT is such an unknown quantity.  The biggest issue I see is that students won’t know how they did on the March test until late May or early June which will impact their ability to retake as needed,” wrote one survey respondent.  “If you are a risk-taker, you could roll the dice, but that isn’t me.  I do think this year’s crop of ‘new SAT’ takers will be a self-selecting group and I don’t know how that will pan out with norming the test.”

Seldom is there such complete unanimity within the counseling community.  In fact, a similar survey of 172 high school counselors conducted a couple of months ago by Kaplan Test Prep suggested a majority were also changing their advice relative to which tests the Class of 2017 should take.

While Kaplan found that a third of high school counselors were recommending students take more than one exam to help them decide which of the three possibilities would help them the most to get into college, 45 percent of the IECs were recommending students take both the SAT and the ACT.

“I am telling my Class of '17 client families that we are more or less on a somewhat bumpy flight through the cloud layer in this admissions cycle. Timing one's testing plan will be important and most students should plan to start testing earlier than usual this cycle,” explained Marla Platt, of AchieveCoach College Consulting.  “I am advising all my juniors to consider doing themselves a favor by planning ahead and sitting for both the current SAT and the ACT to avoid a revised test that, from what we are hearing, appears to be fairly daunting and challenging to prep for.”

Lee Styles of AdmissionsStyles agrees, “The vast majority of my students in the class of '17 are planning to take the old SAT in the fall and, if scores are not as high as they would like, will take the ACT on the more traditional schedule (in the spring). This actually leaves them a third option—trying the new SAT in the spring and early fall of senior year. While testing in the fall of junior year may be a bit early for some, the reality of the situation is that if they need to they can always take the new SAT, but if they wait until spring, they can't turn back the clock and take the old SAT!”

Largely in agreement about the need for more flexible thinking about test-taking strategies, IEC opinions about specific tests and test dates varied.  And they were nuanced or tailored to individual students, suggesting answers to these questions were not quite as simple as they may seem and underscoring the “value added” of having an IEC available to provide advice on testing.

According to one IEC, “I am spending lots of time with each student trying to discern the best strategy…There are so many factors—not just which test is best, but when to take it given kids’ crazy busy schedules.”

A slight majority of IECs (55%) indicated they would not be recommending students take both the SAT and the ACT.

“I’m suggesting that most of my junior students forego the SAT.  Let the College Board work out the kinks for a year, and then we’ll reconsider,” said Vita Cohen, of Cohen College Consulting.

Cori Dykman, of Annapolis College Consulting adds, “I am absolutely steering my 2017 students to the ACT because it is an assessment which they can better prepare for, because they will have test scores back in a reasonable timeframe, and because the new SAT will have swarms of tutors taking it and possibly changing the normed score.”

Slightly over two-thirds of those surveyed indicated they would be recommending students, who are academically prepared, take the current version of the SAT to avoid changes, capitalize on known skills, satisfy coaches, or otherwise get the test out of the way.  IECs specified the following groups of students might consider taking the more familiar “devil you know” old SAT:

  • Students who perform better on the old SAT (using test diagnostic)
  • Students who are “academically mature, truly ready to start test prep soon”
  • Juniors with high sophomore PSAT scores
  • DI athletic prospects
  • CTY (Center for Talented Youth) students for screening purposes
  • Rising juniors who have completed (or will complete as juniors) Algebra II
  • Students with attention or processing issues, given the personal timing challenges inherent to the ACT
  • Students with strong backgrounds in Algebra
  • Students scoring over 154 on the October PSAT
  • Students who read voraciously
  • Students who like testing and understand the new/old SAT model
  • Student s who are considering coastal campuses (more than one IEC suggested regional biases about the tests)
  • Students who have time management issues with ACT or otherwise don’t like it
  • Students with weaker math/science skills
One IEC explained, “I’d have students who did significantly better on a practice SAT (than they did on their practice ACT) prep for the old SAT and see how they’re doing come October.  They can always switch if it’s not going well, or take one of the other tests later if necessary or desired.”

Pat Gildersleeve, of the College Advisory Service, wrote, “I could be wrong, but I feel that colleges will know exactly what to do with scores from the ‘old’ SAT or the ACT but not exactly yet what to do with the ‘new’ scores unless they are very good or exceptionally poor ones. Some high schools are good at Common Core teaching; others are fighting it. How will colleges know whether a low SAT score this year is due to the student's ability or to teachers who are resistant to teaching the Common Core skills. With that in mind, I advise students who have done exceptionally well on their PSAT and who plan to take an SAT to take the current test and the rest to take the new SAT and/or the ACT.”

Only about 29% of the surveyed IECs are recommending students take the new SAT. But some feel strongly that a more measured approach is called for:  Rushing to take the old SAT out of fear of the redesigned SAT is, perhaps, the worst advice I have heard. Students should think broadly and consider all options, and plan well in advance.”

Of those recommending the new SAT, there seemed to be a slight preference for the June, 2016 test date—after the dust settles. More than one respondent kindly referred to March test-takers as “guinea pigs,” suggesting the perceived experimental nature of the first administration of the redesigned SAT.

“The new March SAT results won't be a quick 3 week turn around, but probably a 6 to 8 week turn around, leaving students in the dark as to whether to retake the test,” explained one IEC who counseled avoiding the March date.

If nothing else, the recent survey of IECs showed basic distrust of the College Board and its new product.  Unlike previous changes to the SAT, the one debuting in March comes with many more “unknowns.” 

In the meantime, colleges are largely playing a wait-and-see game, which makes the situation even more uncomfortable.  If it turns out they prefer the new SAT (even unofficially), there will be lots of scrambling next summer.

And FairTest is announcing almost weekly new additions to the test-optional/test-flexible list they maintain on their website, as increasing numbers of colleges appear to distance themselves from questions about which test has how much value in the admissions process.

As one IEC suggested, “Before I even start talking about test-taking strategies, the student and I review FairTest schools. That conversation then leads into what these tests actually predict, how they're structured and how colleges will use them. Best test-taking strategy? Maybe a few sessions on math but really, just get a good night's sleep.”

Thank you to the 273 IECA and HECA members who so generously contributed to this survey and freely offered advice to the many students and families grappling with questions about standardized tests.

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