The ACT was originally conceived as an alternative to the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test, or Scholastic Assessment Test), which has been offered since 1901. Two faculty members at the University of Iowa founded the ACT in 1959 in response to changing patterns in college attendance in the U.S. and a desire for a test that more accurately judges a student's ability to perform well in college [sources: Des Moines Register, ACT.org]. The nonprofit company is still based in Iowa City, Ia., today. The name ACT stood for American College Testing when the company was founded, but the company changed its name several years ago. Now the company is called ACT (like you're pronouncing the three letters out loud, A. C. T.), and doesn't technically stand for anything. They've also expanded their business to include adult education, career preparation and other services.
For many years, the ACT's popularity grew slowly throughout the Midwestern states, while SAT maintained strongholds on both coasts, including highly populated states like New York and California. However, in the 21st century, the ACT began to gain a larger share of the testing market, and expanding out of its traditional areas of influence. Possible reasons for this include a growing dissatisfaction with the testing method of the SAT, a growing number of colleges accepting the ACT and incidents of scoring errors on the SAT. ACT has successfully lobbied several states into requiring the ACT exam for all high school seniors.
The content of the ACT has changed over the decades as well. Earlier versions of the test required specific information about American history and science. Today, the ACT tests a student's ability to apply knowledge and concepts in math, science and English without having to memorize vocabulary lists or detailed information. We'll go into much greater detail about the content of the ACT in the next section.