ACT or SAT? Choosing the "right" test can be complicated.


The college admissions landscape has changed over the past twenty years as standardized testing has shifted from a foreground determinant to one of many factors in a holistic process. Testing is still important, however; what's changed is how colleges regard the scores of prospective students.

Students today have an array of options. The divergent information posted on college websites can be confusing. For example, many schools accept both the ACT and the SAT; others use standardized tests for placement only; others are test-flexible, giving students the choice of sending ACT, SAT, SAT II Subject Test, AP or IB scores; still others are testing-optional. What's a kid to do?

Whether a school says it requires testing or not, most students should send test scores. The whole idea of test-optional can be misleading. Unless a student has some severe handicap that renders test scores so unrepresentative of ability demonstrated elsewhere on an application, not sending scores can put one at a disadvantage, especially when taken in aggregate (as students are as an applicant pool). In other words, not testing comes with a big risk. Even for students applying to test-optional schools, test scores can boost an application.

Therefore, most students need to choose SAT or ACT. The two tests are different and have their strengths and their weaknesses. During the two years when the SAT was phasing out its old form and redesigning itself, the ACT became popular. Over the past year, the SAT has gone through several administrations and is making a comeback. Students (and their parents) should consider several factors in order to make an informed decision about which test to take.

There are debates about the differential difficulty of the two tests. I cannot authoritatively comment on the math, but students have told me that the topics are similar, though the SAT does not permit calculator use on one subsection, while the ACT allows calculator throughout. Both Reading sections contain primary source texts; the SAT includes historical documents based on 11th grade topics while the ACT does not. I think the Reading and Writing/English sections of the two tests are of equal difficulty. Though the questions are dissimilar, they follow predictable patterns.

A deciding feature can be how well a student functions under constraint of time. Both tests are about the some total length. But the sections are vastly different in timeframe. The SAT Reading gives 65 minutes for students to read passages and answer 52 questions. The ACT Reading consists of four passages and 40 questions in 35 minutes.  In addition, within the SAT Reading, some questions come in pairs, with the first asking about an idea from the passage and the second asking the student to find the textual evidence for the previous answer. Thus, these questions can be answered together.  The English section of the ACT has 75 questions in 45 minutes, while the comparable Writing section of the SAT contains 44 questions that must be answered in 38 minutes. The ACT Science (which is more of a reading comprehension test than a science one) has seven experiments with 40 questions that must be solved in 35 minutes. Clearly, the ACT is much more of a race against the clock.

Why should a student take the ACT, if so much more time is given on the SAT? The main advantage of the ACT is for students with the accommodation for extra time. Extra time on the ACT gives students a huge advantage. The difference between 35 minutes and 52 is considerable for a close-reading section like Science. By contrast, extra time on the SAT borders on diminishing returns: 97.5 minutes on the Reading--for a student with time and a half--has its downside.

The situation is even more lopsided with the ACT Essay. Though not mandatory, the ACT Essay gives students with extra time a big bonus: they are permitted to self-pace over the entire test. In other words, a student can do the sections in whatever order she chooses, allowing more or less time according to perceived needs and abilities. The optional SAT Essay (done by a minority of testers) offers no such provision.

There are advantages to both tests. The ACT gives a certain subset of students a time advantage over others. Yet the SAT offers an advantage in its scoring: the Reading and the Writing sections are combined into one composite Verbal score. Thus, students who master the grammar can use that to bolster their Reading score.  As well, many colleges super-score the SAT but not the ACT.

Parents and students must consider all elements in making the decision about testing. Don't follow the herd. Don't listen to rumors, such as "The SAT Reading is harder." Most of all, be aware of the inequalities in the system.

That the ACT needs to do something about the problem it has spawned is obvious. For now, however, this is the reality of college entrance testing in 2017.