WASHINGTON -- For many high school students, picking a college entrance test has become a multiple-choice question.
The SAT has long dominated the bustling college-prep market. But the rival ACT is making inroads, buoyed by a shift in conventional wisdom, which now holds that the tests are of about equal value and that a student would be wise to take both. Colleges are driving the trend because admission officers are spreading the word that it doesn't matter which test students take.
The ascendance of the ACT is a boon to students seeking to impress colleges. The SAT tests how students think. The ACT measures what they have learned. Each is a better fit for some students than others.
"You'll do well on at least one of the tests," said Jordan Kirschenbaum, 15, a junior at Churchill High School in Potomac, Md. He plans to take both.
A decade ago, the SAT reigned supreme on the East Coast. But in the past five years or so, colleges have stated "with unanimity" that they don't care which test students take, said Paul Kanarek, vice president of the test-preparatory company Princeton Review.
Although they operate as nonprofit groups, the New York-based College Board, which owns the SAT, and Iowa-based ACT Inc. have an interest in building market share and maintaining prestige among students and colleges in every state.
"We're growing everywhere, but it's especially dramatic down the East Coast," said Jon Erickson, vice president for educational services at ACT.
"We don't see this as a horse race," said Alana Klein, a College Board spokeswoman. "What's important to us is that students are prepared for and succeed in college."
The College Board recently unveiled an eighth-grade assessment and changed a rule to allow students to report only their best scores from multiple tests. Both moves could be viewed as responses to the ACT, which publishes an eighth-grade test and allows students to choose the scores they send to colleges.
To an extent, the recent popularity of ACT reflects backlash against changes to the SAT. The College Board expanded the exam from two sections to three in 2005. The result was a longer test that some students did not care to take twice.
"They're voting with their feet," said Montgomery County, Md., School Superintendent Jerry Weast.
Fewer students are retaking the SAT, College Board officials confirmed, adding that the number of repeat customers stabilized last year after declining in 2006.
Still, the College Board seems to be fighting back. Last summer, the New York publisher announced that students would soon be permitted to pick their best scores from multiple SAT tests to show colleges. At present, colleges receive all of a student's scores. The change, effective with the Class of 2010, seems tailored to encourage repeat business.