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Monday, 21 March 2022

Are alternatives to the suspended SAT exam filling the gap in Egypt?

With SAT suspensions continuing in Egypt, are alternative tests filling the gap? Partially, but problems remain: SATs were canceled indefinitely in Egypt at the beginning of September 2020, with nonprofit organization College Board — which develops and administers them — citing “persistent test security incidents.” Since then, the ACT — another prominent US-designed standardized test run by nonprofit organization ACT — and the homegrown Egyptian EST — launched in mid-2020 by the Education Ministry in collaboration with the UK’s Pearson — have been used as part of the mandatory university entry requirements for American Diploma students in Egypt. Both the ACT and EST are online tests.

Where is each test recognized? International universities like AUC accept both SAT and ACT results. The EST will be the only recognized exam for admission into local Egyptian universities, Education Minister Tarek Shawki announced early last year, and is currently only valid in Egypt.

Initially, the 2020 SAT suspension left students and parents scrambling, because the ACT was largely unknown here, and faced capacity issues, while the EST also faced many initial infrastructure-related challenges, El Alsson’s head of Guidance and Student Services Angie Shalaby tells Enterprise.

The ACT saw demand change virtually overnight, seeing “an explosion of demand,” Andy Taylor, ACT’s vice president for market segments and project management, tells Enterprise. “In scholastic year 2020, we probably served around 5k tests in Egypt. In 2021, it was around 70k.”

At first, this strained the new systems’ capacity and infrastructure, which weren’t “quite ready for the volume of students trying to get slots to sit these tests,” says El Alsson American School Principal Allison Fleet.

And impacted university enrollment: American Diploma admissions to Badr University took a hit in 2020 and 2021, falling to their lowest in September 2021 to 32% below normal numbers, CIRA CEO Mohamed El Kalla tells us. Sometimes, the admission window opens but applicants haven’t yet finished their SAT or ACT exams, because of these logistical problems — so then universities run out of seats for them, he explains.

The ACT and EST haven’t completely filled the SAT-shaped hole: After the SAT suspension, many students flew to Jordan, Lebanon, and Dubai to sit the SAT there, says Shalaby. AIS students who specifically want to sit the SAT because they feel they’ll do better at it, and are able to travel outside Egypt, will do so, Director Kapono Ciotti tells Enterprise. This phenomenon is gaining steam, “especially for those who want to attend universities outside of Egypt,” notes El Kalla.

Why? With the ACT, there have been reported difficulties in obtaining information and all-important practice tests: Since the ACT has been in widespread use in Egypt, El Alsson has generally not known where to address questions or get preliminary test results, Fleet tells Enterprise. El Alsson ordered the ACT’s practice exam, “but it never arrived.” This is a problem, Fleet explains, because benchmarking is an important part of the overall assessment and preparation process. This test was withdrawn at the end of 2020, which may be why El Alsson had difficulties accessing it, Taylor says.

Very little is known about the EST either, including the content or nature of the exam. “Most of what I know is what I’ve heard from the students who’ve taken it,” says Shalaby. Ciotti notes that his unfamiliarity with the EST is unsurprising, as demand among AIS students is currently low, as access to the SAT and ACT is “all they need” to enter their target universities.

Communication is also a commonly cited challenge: Both testing systems rely on third-party representatives to assist with communication and logistics, but this hasn’t been smooth. The ACT has changed its third-party representative in Egypt three times since late-2020, notes Shalaby. Since 2020, ACT and EST third-parties have primarily communicated through social media, she says. And generally, the onus was on her to contact these third parties for information about the testing and registration processes, and then share this with other schools in her network as a courtesy. SAT-related communication, which was always directly with College Board, was never problematic, she adds.

Though this could be changing: Both the ACT and EST’s third-party representatives were responsive to inquiries, and the process of communication with each has become more straightforward with time, Shalaby says.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is that the market position of all three tests remains unclear, sources suggest.

No one knows if the SAT will resume. “SAT testing remains paused in Egypt until further notice, including all testing in the 2021-22 school year,” College Board told Enterprise in a statement. College Board was reportedly discussing how to resume SAT testing in Egypt with the government over the last year, but so far hasn’t reached a solution that satisfies both parties, says one source speaking on condition of anonymity. College Board did not respond to further requests for comment from Enterprise.

ACT’s approvals are being renewed annually: The ACT received Education Ministry approval in 2019 to be used for admission into higher education, or as a capstone exam for secondary education — putting it on equal footing with the SAT and enabling it to effectively challenge what the ACT saw as College Board’s monopoly in MENA — but this approval still gets renewed annually, Taylor says.

And the government is said to be pushing for the EST to be recognized outside Egypt, several sources noted, although they stress that their knowledge is purely anecdotal and they don’t have any details on what steps the government might be taking.

ACT says that any initial challenges are well on the way to being resolved, with some issues that were there in the past now being addressed effectively, Taylor says. Initial capacity issues were an inevitable byproduct of such a sudden flood of demand, but they appear to be resolving fairly organically, he says. Fleet agrees, saying the new testing systems have improved capacity and infrastructure issues.

Information and practice tests can be accessed on their website: There is information for students on the ACT website, along with multiple practice tests — some of which can be accessed at no charge, and schools or candidates with questions can always contact ACT directly, Taylor says.

It’s also pushing for its approval in Egypt to be permanent — which would offer some consistency for schools and students to plan and take the test, Taylor notes.

Some feel this kind of decisive action would be a vast improvement: “The primary thing I want is clarity — just for a decision to be made and then stuck to, so schools can use that information to advise and support their students,” says Fleet.

Others, including El Kalla, argue that resuming the SAT in Egypt is the only real solution, as it’s still the most widely accepted standardized test for American Diploma students.

ACT wants to be able to compete for market share alongside the SAT and EST, with students permitted to take whichever test they feel suits them best, says Taylor. “Yes, we’re competitors. But we see the value in each other’s products,” he says, speaking about the SAT.


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