Recently, The College Board announced that the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) will be completely online starting in 2024. This announcement has resulted in many questions from parents, high school students, and administrators across the nation. Scott Snyder, Ph.D., Professor in the University of Alabama at Birmingham's Department of Human Studies, is an expert on measurement and an advisor to the Alabama Department of Education on testing and school accountability issues.  

Below, Snyder provides factual answers to frequently asked questions regarding college admissions testing and the new format's impact on students preparing to take the SAT in Alabama.

Why are colleges interested in ACT and SAT scores?

Both the ACT and the SAT provide some evidence that their test scores provide valuable information to colleges and universities for predicting the success of potential students. Average high school grades are influenced by various factors, including the rigor of a student's course load. Therefore, performance on standardized admissions tests gives colleges another tool to understand the academic readiness of applicants. The standardized nature of these tests also provides reliable and comparable information that colleges use to award academic merit scholarships. Additionally, some colleges use these test scores to determine which level of math or English courses incoming students should take to start their academic pursuits in college.

Do colleges and universities accept both the ACT and SAT?

Yes, all colleges in the US accept both the ACT and the SAT for college admissions consideration. There is no evidence that college admissions professionals prefer one test over the other. However, because of the differences in the tests, students may do better on one test rather than the other.

How many students in Alabama take the ACT and the SAT?

  • ACT: In Alabama, all juniors who want to receive a regular high school diploma must complete the ACT as part of the state's accountability system. That is roughly 56,000 students each year. The ACT scores range from 1 to 36. The national average on the ACT in 2021 was 20.1, and the average in Alabama was 18.7. Five other states require all students to complete the ACT. The average score for those states in 2021 was 18.8.

  • SAT: Usually, about 7% of eligible Alabama students (about 3,200) take the SAT each year. In 2021, only about 3% of eligible students took the SAT. This decrease could be due to several challenges the world has faced due to COVID-10. For instance, many testing centers were closed due to COVID-19 in 2021. For the SAT, the national average score in 2021 was 1061. The average score for the 1,706 students in Alabama was 1159. This difference demonstrates why some college-bound students in Alabama, who wish to have the most competitive college application, take the SAT and the ACT.

What are the similarities and differences between the current versions of the ACT and SAT?

Both tests assess reading, English/grammar/language, and math. The ACT has a separate optional writing assessment. While both tests assess science, the ACT has a separate section for science. It, therefore, provides an additional score in that area that represents 25% of the student's overall test score. Both tests currently take about three hours, but the supplemental writing section of the ACT adds another 40 minutes. The ACT allows calculators for all the math sections. The SAT allows the use of calculators for one of two math sections. While much of the math sections of both tests focus on algebra, the ACT gives more attention to geometry than the SAT. A significant difference between the two tests is that Math is worth half of the points on the SAT but only worth 25% on the ACT. Students who are stronger in math may score somewhat better on the SAT since math makes up 50% of the score on that test.
However, once the SAT goes entirely online in 2024, some of the differences listed above will disappear, i.e., the use of calculators for all math questions on the SAT. Unfortunately, it is unclear what will happen with the other differences listed above— specifically, the geometry portion in the math sections and accomodating students with special needs.

How will the SAT be different when it goes completely online?

Significant changes will be made to the SAT when it goes online in 2024. Most significantly, completion of the test will be in two hours rather than three. The College Board, the publishers of the SAT, are using a process called "computer adaptive testing" or "tailored testing" to provide a somewhat individualized and significantly shorter testing experience to students. The online test will present the student with test items of different difficulties to determine where the student falls along the 800-point scale currently used for each of the two sections. If students miss a difficult question, they will be given a somewhat easier item next. If they pass that item, they will move on to a slightly more complex one. This adjustment takes place until the estimate of the student's ability is stable.

One consequence of this change to computer adaptive testing will be reading assessment. Currently, students must answer several items associated with specific reading passages that may be lengthy (e.g., eight paragraphs). The new test includes shorter passages and asks only one question per passage. The question will still address the range of reading skills tested on the current examination but involve more reading passages.

College Board also indicates that the passages will reflect the type of content that students will encounter in college courses. It will be interesting to see how well these passages will predict success in college courses for first-year students who are likely to experience longer reading passages in college classes.

What are some of the advantages of the test going completely online?

One advantage of taking the test online is the shorter test duration. While a two-hour test is tiring and stressful, it is undoubtedly less demanding than the current three-hour test. If the states allow schools to administer the test, the shorter test length will be less disruptive to learning and instruction. At this time, students in Alabama would need to take the test in an approved testing center because Alabama does not require the SAT as part of its school accountability assessment system. By 2024 most students in Alabama will be very familiar with online testing (since the ACAP is entirely online and students can also take the ACT online). This current generation of students has grown up with frequent online assessments, making them more comfortable with the digital delivery of the test than older generations.

Additionally, College Board and some media outlets reported that students who took pilot versions of the online SAT preferred it over the paper and pencil PSAT they took the year before. Students claimed they liked that the online version was streamlined and that there was a timer onscreen to help stay on schedule for the exam sections.

Another benefit of the online administration of the SAT is how quickly students and parents will receive the results back. It is expected that students should receive their scores within days rather than after two weeks.

What are some of the potential problems of the test going online?

There are two potential problems associated with online testing. First is the issue of access to the technology needed to take the test online. While students will have to take the SAT at an approved testing site rather than at home, they will be allowed to use their technology. Therefore, either the student must bring their laptop or tablet, or the testing facility must provide students with the equipment. This access to proper equipment may be particularly challenging to poor and rural communities where access to hardware and internet bandwidth may be factors.

The other significant challenge with online testing is losing power, internet connection, uploading problems, or system glitches during the testing window. The College Board had previously reported plans to address the loss of power by saving where/when the student was in the test.

Should a high school student in Alabama take the SAT?

While both the SAT and the ACT are used for college admissions, students might perform considerably better on one test than on another. Since half of the total score of the SAT is based on math while only 25% of the ACT total score is based on math, students who are stronger in math may do better on the SAT rather than the ACT. Cost and accessibility to a testing center might influence whether students should take the SAT as well. The SAT currently costs $55, whereas the ACT is free to juniors in high school. Students might also have to travel to testing centers to take the test. If cost and accessibility were not challenges, having another set of scores to consider submitting would give the applicant another opportunity for showing colleges their strengths.

How should a high school student decide whether to submit their ACT or SAT scores for admissions to a test-optional college?

UAB provides the following advice to students about submitting ACT or SAT scores:

"In 2020, UAB's incoming first-year class had a mean ACT composite score of 25.9 and a mean high school GPA of 3.83. With these averages in mind, students should submit scores for consideration if they believe that their scores accurately reflect their quality of work in high school. If they feel that an ACT or SAT score is not reflective of their ability, they should not submit scores." (https://www.uab.edu/admissions/apply/test-optional)

The SAT score equivalent to an ACT of 25.9 is in the 1220-1230 range. While colleges will consider a range of academic and non-academic factors when making an admission decision, if a student's score is at or above the average for the test-optional college, they may benefit from considering their test scores.

Students trying to decide whether to submit their test scores are strongly encouraged to get advice from their school counselor or an admissions counselor at the college(s) they are interested in attending.

At UAB, admissions counselors can be reached through the following link: https://www.uab.edu/admissions/contact/admissions-counselors.