Thomas Chun took the SAT college entrance exam twice, scoring well within qualifying range for prestigious research universities, if hundreds of points short of the top mark.
Still, Chun believed his score, 2090 out of a possible 2400, might not stand up against those of other whiz kids at Whitney High, his selective magnet school in Cerritos. So he took the other admissions test, the ACT, and scored a perfect 36.
"I was never a big fan of the SAT," said Chun, 17, of Cerritos, who since sixth grade has dreamed of going to Yale. "The ACT tests you on what you learned in high school rather than what you learned in test prep academy."
The ACT was once the overlooked stepsister to the SAT. It was popular in the Midwest and the South but less established on the East and West coasts. Now, however, the ACT is growing faster than its rival, not only nationally but also in SAT strongholds such as California, where 50% more students in the class of 2008 took the ACT than their 2004 counterparts. Nationwide, the ACT was taken by 1.4 million students in the 2008 class, compared with 1.5 million who took the SAT, according to the test companies.
It is not clear why the ACT, which has competed against the older SAT since 1959, is surging now. There is no evidence that one test is easier or harder than the other, and most colleges consider them equally valid.
The SAT has been battered by accusations of elitism and cultural bias, and recent revisions to the exam -- prompted by criticism from the University of California -- have stirred uncertainty that sent some students scrambling for an alternative, several experts said.
In addition, ACT precursor tests are being marketed to younger and younger students, and the test is cheaper than the SAT. In California, many students appear to use the ACT as a backup, to game the increasingly fierce college admissions competition. At the University of California, which accepts either test, one-third of fall freshman submitted ACT scores, up from 28% the year before. California State University schools accept the SAT or the ACT from students who are required to submit test scores.
"But we are still an 'SAT state,' with 97.0% of all test takers taking the SAT (or a combination of SAT/ACT)," Susan A. Wilbur, UC director of undergraduate admissions, wrote in an e-mail.
"Our national obsession with high-stakes testing induces students to hedge their bets by taking both tests, and multiple times," said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Assn. of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
"Instead of competing with each other in a zero-sum manner, both test companies benefit from admission anxieties," he said.
Despite its growth, the ACT still lags behind its rival in California, with 72,356 test-takers for the 2008 class compared with the SAT's 205,145. For some students, the ACT seems a bit, well, lame.
"The ACT, it's an out-there test for me," said Whitney High senior Milly Shah. "And 36 seems like a weird number."
At John Marshall High School in Silver Lake, where it seems virtually every student wants to go to UCLA, the ACT is the underdog, some students said.
"It's like in sports. . . . The SAT is football and the ACT is water polo," said Tina Bui, 17, of Atwater Village.
But Campbell Hall, a private school in North Hollywood, recommends that students take both the SAT and the ACT in their junior year to set a "benchmark," said college counselor John M. Corona. Most students take a test preparation class and at least one of the exams again senior year, he said.
Senior Jack Acland, 17, said he was leaning toward the SAT but followed the recommendation to take both tests.
"I thought I would do better on the SAT, but I did slightly better on the ACT," the Sherman Oaks resident said.
Bui also plans to take the ACT and the SAT -- two times each. "Teachers say take it, take it, take it as many times as you can," she said.
Chun took eight standardized tests in his junior year: two SATs, three AP tests, two SAT subject tests (all owned by College Board) and the ACT. He also took the state standards tests.
For college-bound students, the relative merits of the tests are topics of minute dissection. The SAT marks off a only quarter-point for wrong answers, so it's better for guessers. The ACT is easier for students who memorize well, the SAT for those with analytic skills. The ACT is hard to finish on time . . . no, that's the SAT. The ACT is for girls, the SAT is for boys. Test prep classes work for the SAT, not the ACT. Or is it the other way around?
Testing officials say the theories about which test is better for specific types of students are all myths. Some counselors recommend the SAT for underachievers who like strategy games and the ACT for those who do well in class.
"But students should not expect a miracle; the vast majority score very closely on both tests," said Jake Neuberg, co-founder of Santa Monica-based Revolution Prep, a test preparation company.