updated 10/18/2006 9:06:06 PM ET 2006-10-19T01:06:06

The SAT and ACT college entrance exams each report the number of students taking their test this month is up sharply from a year ago, a likely sign more students are trying both exams to boost their admission chances.

About 520,000 students have registered for the Oct. 28 sitting of the ACT, a 17 percent increase from last year, according to the latest figures. The number of students who took last Saturday’s SAT was about 660,000, compared to 570,000 last October.

The increases may partly reflect interest from more students in attending college. And one likely factor is more college-bound students are trying to get their testing out of the way earlier in the year. Both tests report early registration figures for their later test dates are running no higher than last year.

But much of the ACT increase, at least, appears to come from students switching exams or trying both of them. About half the increase in ACT-takers is on the East Coast, where most students have historically taken the SAT. ACT registration is nearly two-thirds higher than a year ago in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and about 50 percent higher in New York, Connecticut, Georgia and Florida, according to the ACT.

The number of high school seniors overall is up slightly from last year, but not enough to account for the increase.

“I just wanted to broaden my chances of getting into colleges by taking as many tests as I can,” said Alex Simon, a senior at Seabreeze High School in Daytona Beach, Fla., who has taken the SAT once but will take the ACT later this year.

SAT drops slightly, ACT up
Most colleges accept either exam. Among the high school class that graduated this spring, more than 1.4 million took the SAT, while just over 1.2 million took the ACT. But the number of SAT test-takers dipped slightly last year, while ACT’s numbers were up.

Historically, the ACT has been more popular in the center of the country and the South, and the SAT on the coasts.

The tests are broadly comparable, but the ACT calls itself an “achievement” test and is focused on material students cover in high school classes, including science. The SAT calls itself a “reasoning” test and is more focused on asking students to take basic skills and apply them.

“Students just show different strengths, so play to your strengths,” said Mary Bogle, counselor at Quakertown Community High School in Pennsylvania, a school that has been advising students to take both exams.

Some reasons behind ACT's jump
Other factors may also help explain the bump in ACT scores.

  • Last year, many students reported being worn out by the length of the newly revised SAT, which is has been expanded to three hours, 45 minutes of official testing time. The ACT lasts just under three hours (plus a half-hour for the optional writing section).
  • Publicity early this year over SAT scoring errors hurt the reputation of the College Board, which owns the exam. Some counselors say they have more faith in the ACT, though that organization, too, has experienced scoring problems. Both test-makers are nonprofit.
  • The ACT has gained broader acceptance by colleges, and may allow students to do less testing overall. Some selective colleges require both the SAT and SAT subject tests, but will take the ACT alone. The ACT also gives students more flexibility to submit to colleges only the scores they wish them to see, notes Leonard Krivy, a Cherry Hill, N.J. educational consultant who has been advising more of his students to take the ACT.
  • Some students feel test prep isn’t necessary for the ACT.

“There’s not a gamesmanship” with the ACT, said Jon Erickson, vice president of enrollment services for ACT. “It’s really common sense, go through the curriculum sequence, get good grades. ... The scores will be a logical byproduct, not something you have to shoot for in itself.”

Still, ACT sells test prep materials from its Web site. And Brian O’Reilly, executive director of SAT information services, said it’s not necessarily true that simply going to class prepares students for ACT questions. He notes many who take the SAT practice on the PSAT, whereas the ACT is new to them.

The SAT was created to democratize college admissions, and can still help talented students who haven’t had access to a strong curriculum show their stuff.

Simon, the Daytona Beach student, says he isn’t sure what he will do next. Because of the PSAT, he knows the SAT form well and may try again. But friends told him the ACT was easier. Money is another factor. The new SAT costs $41.50, though some students are eligible for fee waivers. The ACT costs $29, but is $43 with the writing exam.

“It depends on economic reasons,” he said. Between test fees “and taking time off work, it all kind of adds up.”

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