Illinois has embraced the SAT, and the ACT is mad about it

In a fight between two giant standardized test providers, the SAT again has won a multi-million-dollar contract for Illinois’ high-school tests — and the also-ran ACT is filing a protest with the Illinois State Board of Education.

After obtaining documents from the state last week, the ACT is protesting the state’s decision to award a multi-year contract to the College Board, the company that runs the SAT. While ACT officials contend the selection process was unfair, it will spell continuity for Illinois public high schools, which have been taking College Board tests in recent years.

Early this year, the state board requested a vendor to provide annual 9th-, 10th-, and 11th-grade tests. The request said the contract would last for three years, with the possibility of contract renewals for three additional years. In June, it selected the College Board to provide the SAT for 11th-graders and, for the first time, to provide the pre-SAT standardized test, known as the PSAT, for 9th- and 10th-graders.

The ACT is arguing that the College Board deviated from the state’s directions in how to calculate the cost of its bid. As a result, the winning bid was for $59.7 million, or $1.7 million lower than what it should have been using the state-provided formula. The ACT’s bid was actually less — $54 million — and that’s one of the points underpinning its protest. However, the $5.7 million difference between the two test providers’ bids, spread out over six years, would not make a large difference in the state’s annual budget for assessments. The state has allocated $83.6 million for assessments in its proposed budget for the next school year.

A spokeswoman for the state board declined to comment on whether the state board would review the College Board’s applications, and said that details of the cost and length of College Board’s contract has not yet been finalized.

The state is providing the SAT not only as a college entrance exam, but also as a measure of school achievement. Under Illinois’ Every Student Succeeds Act plan, which establishes ways of measuring school achievement and of helping under-performing schools, the SAT will make up 7.5 percent of state scores on school quality.

The SAT is also part of Chicago Public Schools’ own school rating system. That system, known as SQRP, will use PSAT and SAT scores as 20 percent of a school’s rating in achievement and growth.

This isn’t the first time the ACT has protested the state’s choice of the College Board tests. In 2015, the state board called for bids for 11th grade assessments and chose the College Board’s SAT, a standardized test used commonly for college applications. The ACT protested, arguing that the state board was biased when choosing the SAT over the ACT, another test also commonly used in college applications. But the College Board prevailed, and Illinois began administering the SAT to 11th-grade students in the 2016-17 school year.

Administering and paying for college-entrance exams helps students, in convenience and cost. Sitting for an SAT exam costs about $50, a fee that not all families can afford.

But whichever test the state ends up choosing likely would not affect students in their college applications.

Joyce Kenner, the principal of Whitney Young Magnet School on the Near West Side, said that, historically, East Coast colleges have asked for SAT scores and Midwest colleges have asked for ACT scores, but most colleges now accept both. Some schools, such as the University of Chicago, have even begun to not require standardized test scores.

Kenner added that, last school year, when the state was offering only the SAT, most Whitney Young students also took the ACT. Five of the school’s students attained perfect scores.

While Illinois has in effect underwritten the cost of taking the SAT — for one annual sitting — for its public-school students, this coming school year the state will also provide the PSAT for 9th- and 10th-grade students.

In the past, some schools like Whitney Young paid for its 10th-grade students to take the PSAT out of its school budget.

“As long as we continue to provide a quality education here at Whitney Young and we’re hitting all the areas,” Kenner said, “I’m not concerned about which standardized test.”