Put to the test: ACT vs. SAT

Put to the test: ACT vs. SAT

It's a tough time to be a high school junior in Illinois.

With no state budget in place and looming uncertainty over whether the state will even continue to fund college entrance exams, let alone which test it will pick, Urbana Superintendent Don Owen has sympathy for the first class of juniors since 2000 who are now trying to figure out how to pay for the ACT or SAT.

"My hope is the state will have this mess worked out quickly and do the work they were supposed to finish this summer," he said. "I wouldn't want to be a junior this year."

For the past 15 years, Illinois has paid for every junior in the state to take the ACT as part of the standardized Prairie State Achievement Exam (PSAE). But when Illinois debuted its Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam last spring, school districts were told the state would no longer spring for the ACT.

A temporary solution came months later, when legislators passed a bill requiring the state to fund some sort of college entrance exam. That led to the Illinois State Board of Education to abandon its longtime arrangement with the company that puts out the ACT and reopen a bidding process that ended with the rival SAT being offered a contract that was $1.37 million cheaper than ACT's bid.

But with national testing dates just weeks away, it remains uncertain which standardized test will be the one administered in Illinois — no contracts can be signed until the state's procurement office evaluates and rules on a protest filed by the ACT.

If the state ultimately chooses the three-year, $14.3 million contract with the SAT — a test widely used on both coasts but not as much in the Midwest — it will get an earful from public school principals and parents, predicts one local ACT prep teacher.

In this case, familiarity should trump finances, says Jason Franklin, owner of Better Prep Success. "I can tell you, public schools are furious with the state's decision. It's another example of politicians — the ISBE is very political — not listening to people," Franklin said.

"Schools wanted the ACT, not the SAT. Most schools, like Mahomet, already have ACT prep set into their courses and now the state wants them to switch? That's a waste of taxpayers' money. The ACT has been the dominant test in the Midwest for over half a century."

'A whole mind shift'

The uncertainty has put school districts in a bind. Should they just go ahead and figure out how to pay for the ACT themselves, as Rantoul and Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley high schools have pledged to do and Paxton-Buckley-Loda plans to consider this week? Or should they wait it out?

Urbana already has a special arrangement with the ACT that provides a low-cost option for students on national testing days. Normally, the full ACT costs $56.50 per student, $2 more than the SAT.

But Urbana's deal "ends up costing the students about 50 percent less than what the ACT normally costs," Owen said. "We haven't made any final decisions and are still exploring options, but funding it is not something we have in our budget. We'll have to start exploring sooner rather than later."

District officials in Champaign, Danville and Monticello are working one-on-one with students who qualify to take the exam for free. The ACT offers a waiver for students who qualify for the free or reduced lunch program; they can take the test for free twice a year.

"But the families that don't qualify are going to have to pay to take the ACT," said Unit 4 spokeswoman Stephanie Stuart. "Ideally, there would be funding there so they wouldn't have to."

Most districts don't have the luxury of being able to wait for the state to pick between the two tests, said Monticello High Principal Tip Reedy. Even if the state opts to fund the SAT over the ACT, Monticello juniors won't be taking it this year.

"It's too fast. We have ACT prep within our curriculum," Reedy said. "It's a whole mind shift from the ACT to the SAT. They're two different tests and our students are groomed and conditioned for the ACT."

That's what Claire Schraufnagl wants to hear. In search of scholarships, the Monticello junior has already taken both the ACT and SAT. The latter is "much harder," she said.

"The topics are similar, but the questions are harder," she said. "It's more difficult to get through."

'Money is hard'

Adding further confusion to the mix: Come March, the SAT will for the first time roll out a revamped version of the test. It will look and feel more like the ACT, and the questions will fall more in line with Common Core standards, said Audra Berg, the head of the Sylvan Learning Franchise in Springfield.

With the new SAT, test takers will no longer be penalized for wrong answers. The maximum score will go from 2,400 to 1,600. Multiple-choice questions will have four options, not five. And, as with the ACT, the essay portion will become optional. (The essay-less exams will even come at a discount — $43 per test instead of $54.50).

Still, Franklin argues, cutting a deal with a test "that has no history" was a very "poor decision by the state."

Monticello Guidance Counselor Amy Malone calls the contract with the SAT a "waste of taxpayer money" and predicts students statewide will pay to take the ACT, even if the SAT is the test that's free.

Whichever standardized test is chosen, Owen said it's critical that the state — cash-strapped as it may be — ensures every junior takes one or the other.

"In terms of equity and fairness, that should be something that we as a state, a community and public education in general are providing, but it's always been a state level issue," he said. "Local school districts, midway through the budget year, can't afford to pick up something like this very easily."

Ty'Kira Dubose will second that. The Centennial senior said "there's no way" she could have afforded to take the ACT without financial help. She got it — twice — and scored well enough to get into Howard University, where she'll study secondary education.

"As someone who is trying to go on and do better and create a career for myself, money is hard," she said. "I do think it's the state's responsibility to pay for some type of exam."


Sometime soon, we should know whether the ACT, the unofficial standardized test of choice by the state of Illinois, will remain so — or if the just-revised SAT will take over here. Nicole Lafond compares the two:


ACT 4 sections: English, Math, Reading, Science

SAT 3 sections: Math, Reading, Writing/Language

Perfect score

ACT 36, achieved last March — and April — by then-Mahomet-Seymour junior Griffin Megeff.

SAT 1600. Central's Likith Govindaiah was among the 0.03% to get every answer right in 2013, just as he did on the ACT.

Range of middle 50% of current UI freshmen

ACT 27-32

SAT 1320-1470 out of 1600 in previous format (no writing/language)

Popular in ...

ACT Preferred by most Midwest colleges and universities

SAT Ivy League and schools on both coasts prefer SAT scores


ACT $56.50 with writing, $39.50 without

SAT $54.50 with essay, $43 without

National testing dates

ACT Feb. 6, April 9, June 11

SAT March 5, March 7, June 4

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