NYT Gets SAT/ACT Surge Story Half Right

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Stories about predatory and opportunistic testing companies aren’t a difficult narrative to sell these days, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re accurate or complete — even when they come from the New York Times.

Yesterday’s Kate Zernike piece, Rejected by Colleges, SAT and ACT Gain High School Acceptance, describes how the two big testing companies have found a new way to sell their big tests, the SAT and ACT, despite a decrease in the number of colleges that require them:

“The SAT and the ACT, bugaboos of generations of college applicants, were supposed to shrink in significance as more colleges and universities have moved away from requiring standardized test scores for admission.

“Instead, the companies behind them have pushed into the nearly $700-million-a-year market for federally required tests in public schools, offering the SAT and the ACT even to students who do not plan to go to college.”

But is this narrative accurate or complete? Are colleges really rejecting the SAT and ACT in any meaningful substantive numbers? Did states turn to the SAT and ACT in response to colleges moving away from admissions testing? Are states really turning to college admissions tests for broader groups of high school students?

Let’s check it out, starting with reactions from some of those who were part of the story:

Reached by email, FairTest’s Bob Shaeffer seemed understandably generally pleased with the piece. “As I told the NYTimes reporter, this is a shrewd marketing ploy by the college admissions test-makers, who were faced with stagnant sales prospects for their flagship exams due to the explosive surge of colleges and universities dropping ACT/SAT exam requirements.”

According to FairTest, a record 34 colleges went test-optional last year alone.

Not surprisingly, the ACT took a different view. “The NY Times story paints a picture of an opportunistic  ACT,” according to Ed Colby, ACT’s Senior Director for Media and Public Relations — underplaying the reality that states like Illinois and Colorado started administering the ACT going back 15 years, followed by other states including Kentucky, Michigan, North Dakota, and Wyoming.  This year, 16 states are using the ACT as part of their statewide assessment programs, according to ACT.

The ACT’s Colby also took issue with the story’s opening line, which “doesn’t link up that well with reality.” According to the ACT, over 83 percent of the non-open-enrollment four-year colleges require or recommend an entrance exam. “This is not a movement.”

On the issue of colleges going test-option, Achieve’s Chad Colby seemed to agree that the Times’ central thesis might not be accurate. “Are a lot of colleges really rejecting ACT/SAT?” 

And another key bit of information in the Times piece turned out not to be accurate. The piece centers around the case of Delaware, which recently decided to replace the SBAC with the SAT. Now tucked at the bottom of the story is a correction noting that the original $100 million figure given as an estimate of savings Delaware would win from switching tests was, in fact, just $100,000.

According to Achieve’s Chad Colby, Zernike didn’t respond to his question about the original figure (posed on Twitter), but the correction appeared shortly afterwards. Attempts to reach Zernike to discuss the story and discover how the mistake occurred were unsuccessful. 

Despite these issues, Colby felt that “overall, I think it was a good story and contained a lot of information not covered before.”

For example, the piece gives a nearly $700 million figure for federally required tests in public schools (courtesy Matt Chingos), points out a dynamic that may not have started with Common Core testing but has certainly accelerated since then (including Delaware and Montana, Connecticut, Michigan, and proposals in Illinois, Tennessee, Florida and West Virginia).

Indeed, while the ACT got a head start working with states, the SAT has been closing the gap in recent years. According to a College Board spokesperson, “There is great momentum for the new SAT, as we’ve seen in places like Michigan, Colorado, Illinois, and New York City.”

Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, and the District of Columbia are administering the SAT already, according to the College Board. New York City has been phasing in SAT testing for all students over the past several years.

I’m curious why Zernike and her editors chose to push the college admissions testing angle, which seems weakly supported, rather than the Common Core replacement one, which seems much stronger. 

As you may recall, Zernike returned to the education beat this past summer, and has written a handful of pieces since then. One of them, focused on testing changes in Mass., was flagged by several readers and contradicted by local outlets. 

Over all, this piece is reminiscent of another recent Times effort  focused on Oakland public schools, in which the journalists involved seemed to be pushing a narrative that wasn’t well documented and downplaying another one that seemed much stronger in terms of evidence available to support it.

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.