In 2012, the ACT surpassed the SAT for the first time ever, but just barely. That year, there were 1,666,017 ACT takers and 1,664,479 SAT takers—a difference of less than 2,000 students. In 2013, the supremacy of the ACT has become undisputed. This year, the ACT added well over 100,000 new users, putting the final tally of ACT test takers over 1.8 million students. The SAT, by contrast, just avoided a net loss in test takers by administering more midweek School Day tests.
With its superior Common Core alignment, the ACT is gobbling up state-wide testing contracts and positioning itself as a measure of not just college readiness but high school performance as well. In 2013, North Carolina, a dyed-in-the-wool SAT state, administered an ACT to every junior. Alabama schools are holding principals accountable for their students' ACT results, leading to a new culture of in-school ACT preparation. Record numbers of students across the Southeast and in other traditional SAT strongholds are applying to colleges exclusively with an ACT score.
As the ACT advances deeper into previously uncontested College Board territory, it is confronting stronger and savvier test takers in territories where substantial test prep is the norm. In 2000, only 131 students of the 1,065,138 total test takers (.012%) achieved a score of 36 on the ACT. Compare this to the current 1,162 perfect scores from the pool of roughly 1,800,000 students in 2013 (.065%). This is a remarkable 430% increase in the percentage of perfect scores in a relatively short period of time.
Too many 36s throws off the ACT's desired score distribution. In recent years, we've noticed the test writers attempting to counter the rise of perfect scores by adding harder content to certain ACT sections. We've seen the ACT science section, in particular, grow considerably harder, with more multi-phase problems and more challenging timing demands. Students using historic ACT tests to gauge their level of preparedness need to factor in the higher difficulty level of the current tests to ensure their expectations are properly calibrated.
While the SAT is retooling and preparing for its 2015 overhaul, the ACT is gearing up to "go digital" with its 2015 online test release. ACT test writers are also subtly shifting their test's content to bring the ACT into even closer alignment with the Common Core standards. On the October ACT, we saw the test writers add a new "author comparison" passage to the Reading section. This was a surprise, but it simply shows how much influence the Common Core standards are having on the college assessments. More changes are coming soon, and we're all awaiting the January/February announcement from the College Board president, David Coleman, outlining exactly what we can expect on the 2015 SAT.