The Fat Envelope
A Discussion Of All Things College Admissions and Test Prep
I've been meaning to blog about this for a while, and the time has finally presented itself. Officials from both the College Board and ACT responded to questions from The New York Times readers about their tests, how they compare to each other, how colleges use them, etc.  While I wouldn't say any of it was earth-shattering news, these posts are good reads for the college bound.  For those of you who don't feel up to reading FIVE lengthy blog posts on the tests, here's a summary of the most interesting points.

1. Unsurprisingly, both sides advocate taking both tests, despite the fact that there just isn't great evidence that this practice benefits students.  While they're non-profit, the College Board and ACT, Inc. are still businesses and they don't want to miss out on your test dollars.  In a recent survey, only 20% of college admissions officers indicated submitting scores from both tests could strengthen an application, and only if both scores were equally strong.  In other words, it's unlikely you'll benefit from taking both tests, and the effort you'd need to put in to be sure your scores were strong on both tests is more than it's worth.  TAKE HOME:  Pick one test and stick with it.

2. When asked about test-optional schools, both sides avoided taking on the question directly and simply pointed to the correlation between test performance and performance in college.  At the same time, they defended the tests as measures of achievement that should - theoretically at least - even the playing field for students who hail from relatively unknown schools.  

3. On test prep, both sides minimize the importance and effectiveness of preparation.  The party line is that paying for prep courses and tutoring won't make large differences in scores. However, in a classic instance of talking out of both sides of one's mouth, both spokespeople point to free prep materials on their websites.  Of course, both the College Board and ACT, Inc. offer their own prep materials as well, in the form of books and online courses.  There's an implicit acknowledgement that prep helps - the "official" prep materials wouldn't exist otherwise - but neither side wants to admit it.  The ACT representative emphasized that "short-term" prep doesn't help.  The SAT official acknowledged that tutoring can help students who don't understand certain concepts.  Both sides point to research saying prep courses achieve only nominal results.  The problem is that most test prep focuses only on "tips and tricks," which are typically good only for a few points.  High quality test prep does offer significant results, and it can remediate knowledge gaps for benefits far beyond test day.

4. On cheating, both sides emphasized their "extensive" security procedures.  While I understand that there's justification for such vague answers -  they don't want to give too much away to would-be cheaters - the effectiveness of the security measures is questionable given recent cheating scandals.  I suppose time will tell whether the new procedures are effective. 

You may have noticed I used the phrase "both sides" repeatedly above.  Neither representative said anything widely divergent from information you could find on the tests' websites.  There was nothing earthshattering and little that differentiated the two sides.  While the SAT and ACT are competing tests, they've clearly decided it's in everyone's best interests to present a united front on most topics, at least to the general public.

On a side note, it was no surprise that Fair Test was one of the names cropping up on the questions about test prep, along with a couple of folks whom I know are tutors.  I also found it hilarious that the SAT spokesperson could barely bring herself to acknowledge that the ACT exists.  That sort of "ostrich-head-sand" mentality is probably partially contributing to the SAT losing ground to the ACT.

If you do want to read the articles in full, you can find them here, here, here, here, and here.
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