Beware lawmakers bearing gifts. Or, if you’re a high-school junior in Illinois, of a free SAT from the state.
Today, for the first time, public high-school students in Illinois will take a state-funded SAT instead of an ACT, and there are several problems with this beneficence. First, it’s mandatory. Second, the score goes on students’ transcripts. Third, and perhaps worst, the free SAT takes place three days before the national ACT that many Illinois juniors are taking—at their own expense—for which they have been preparing and plan to use for applications.
I’m not advocating for the ACT over the SAT, but it was ludicrous for the state to think that after The College Board, the writer of the SAT, won the Illinois state contract, all students would suddenly switch over to a test that had never had the dominance in the Midwest that it once enjoyed on the East and West Coasts. After all, it was true for many years that Midwestern colleges would accept only the ACT for admissions, but all colleges have long since accepted either test, if one at all.
That is why The College Board underbid to get the state contract from ACT in the first place: by 2015, the ACT was trouncing the SAT in the number of test-takers nationally.
The ACT may never have won the battle for cultural dominance—from Beverly Hills 90210 to Modern Family, it’s been all SAT references—but it had won the money, particularly in state contracts (over 18 of them by 2015). So The College Board overhauled the SAT and pursued lucrative state contracts, capturing Illinois, among others, in late 2015. (Good luck to The College Board in collecting that check: we’re broke and haven’t paid our bills in two years.)
As students sit for the first statewide school day SAT, parents are fighting to get those scores off student transcripts, with competing bills in the Illinois House and Senate making success appear likely.
Yet while the fight over the transcripts is valid, it’s beside the point. Holding the free SAT three days before the ACT, the test most Illinois students know, are used to, and want to use for applications, is madness and maddening.
In a few years, if The College Board’s big play pays off, most Illinois juniors and seniors will choose the SAT as their college admissions test. In that case, a free extra test in the spring would be a huge benefit. But this year, the timing couldn’t be worse for April ACT test-takers, and The College Board had to know that when it picked the date.
Why not stick to the third week of April, when the state-mandated ACT was traditionally given? The College Board picked this date for its own interests, and the Illinois State Board of Education complied without giving thought to the state’s students.
Yes, the two tests are more alike than ever, but they are still different enough that switching from one to the other in the same week is disruptive. And worse, an added test, with all the drama of mandatory reported scores on transcripts, is another distraction for teens already stressed out about enough.
My advice to students? Don’t worry about the reported scores: if you do better on the ACT, colleges will consider that number foremost. After the SAT, go home and relax, clearing your brain entirely of that test. Then concentrate on your ACT and do your best. No test can determine your future, even if it can take up your day.