What’s the difference between the SAT and the ACT?

I couldn’t find anything terribly wrong with this Ed Week article. But it didn’t offer anything terribly useful, either,so I thought I’d offer up some facts that might do some good.

Historically, the ACT was the test for the Midwest and South, and the SAT was the test for the coasts, but after the 2005 SAT changes, the ACT’s test population caught up. Both tests are given to around 1.6 million students.

Test Content

The ACT tests the same fact base as the SAT. It’s about 20 minutes shorter than the SAT, although it has far more questions and four sections:”

  • English: 45 minutes, 5 passages of 15 questions.
  • Math: 60 minutes, 60 questions.
  • Reading: 35 minutes, 4 passages of 10 questions.
  • Science: 35 minutes, 7 passages of 4-8 questions (40 total).

The ACT section times are brutal, which is why the ACT benchmarks purporting to report on college readiness should be taken with a healthy dose of salt. In my view, they dramatically underreport the reading, science, and (to a lesser extent) math ability of the lower to mid-range “college” students (keeping in mind that these kids shouldn’t be in college anyway, but that’s a different story).

Each section is scored on a scale of 1-36. The sections are then averaged for a Composite score, which is every bit as useless, really, as the SAT total. Colleges use the section scores far more than is generally known for placement in or out of remediation.

How do you convert ACT scores to SAT?

The University of California used to offer a direct conversion. One sign of the ACT’s growing popularity is that both tests are now converted to a “UC score”.
Roughly, a 21 on any section is the ability equivalent of a 500 on the SAT, a 26 is a 600, and a 31 a 700. However, a one to one combination isn’t possible, with 4 ACT sections and 3 SAT sections.

The UC conversion adds two-thirds of the math/reading/science total to the English/writing combined score. This weights the converted score towards English–rather unfairly, in my view, but not enough to do serious damage.

Which is more closely aligned to school curriculum

Both test knowledge and abilities that students should have mastered in school; the ACT doesn’t directly test science, but content knowledge will make the questions more familiar. The ACT also tests slightly more math: trigonometry, analytic geometry (circle and ellipse equations), and the occasional matrix question. Neither tests specific content knowledge in history, science, or English; for some reason, people say the ACT does. They are wrong.

Which test should students take?

Most students will score in roughly the same percentile on each test. However, some students have strong preferences for the ACT.

Low to mid-tier students are almost always better off with the ACT, something that I wish more do-gooder organizations understood. Much of the SAT’s difficulty is front-loaded–a big challenge in many questions is simply figuring out what the question is. The ACT actually tests more material but its questions are more straightforward. Any student who prefers the concrete to the abstract should consider the ACT, and most low to mid ability students will have a preference for the concrete. However, see the caveat below regarding reading abilities.

Students with SAT section scores in the high 600s/low 700s should always check out the ACT. The 2005 SAT changes reduced the number of questions in each section by 10%, and the cuts were primarily from the higher-difficulty questions. Many students in the mentioned range are every bit as bright as those getting 760+ scores, but are less detail-oriented, and usually make a few unforced errors. They used to make up the difference with their performance on the really difficult problems. Fewer difficult problems, slightly lower scores. (I am nearly certain that the reduced number of questions caused the decline noted when the SAT was changed in 2005.)

The ACT has far more questions than the SAT–215 to 171–and has no “guessing penalty”, which gives high ability students who make the occasional unforced error a significant advantage. To give an example: my son took the old SAT as an early junior and got 690 M, 660 V. I expected him to get high 600s, low 700s on the new one, which he took in March 2005. He received 630s across the board. After working on his accuracy, he took it again and received a 690,690, 670, or 2050.

His ACT scores were English 34, Math 34, Reading 36 (a perfect score), Science 29, which in SAT terms is high 700s across the board, or a 2250 using the UC conversion. At his performance level, that’s a huge boost. I have other anecdotal evidence, but they aren’t my kids so I can’t discuss specifics. Without question, all high ability kids should take both to see if they have a preference.

If taking both, which prep class should I take?

High ability students: take the SAT prep course. First, there are exponentially more SAT classes than ACT, even now. Asians, the primary consumers of test prep courses, don’t seem to take the ACT much (at least around here). Another major consumer, schools offering classes for their own students, also seem ignorant of the ACT.

Moreover, moving from the SAT to the ACT is far more organic than the other way round; the SAT has far more tricks and tidbits that a good test prep teacher can help with. Practicing for the ACT is little more than learning how to work fifty times faster on everything or, if that’s not possible, devising a strategy for getting as much done as possible. Did I mention the brutal timing requirements of the ACT? Oh, well, it bears repeating.

Low to mid-ability students: anyone planning a class aimed to low income, low ability students should select the ACT. Students with weaker abilities will receive more useful instruction, as it has fewer test-specific tricks and the test prep instructor will spend more time on content.

Who Shouldn’t Take the ACT?

The ACT is reading intensive–three of the four tests involve reading comprehension and two of those sections have (here it is for the third time) brutal time requirements. Students whose reading skills are significantly out of alignment with their other abilities (e.g., dyslexia, reading LDs), may want to stick with the SAT.

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18 responses to “What’s the difference between the SAT and the ACT?

  • Pincher Martin

    The last two blog entries you have posted are both first rate.

  • random mutation

    I’m having a little reading comprehension:

    The ACT is reading intensive–three of the four tests involve reading comprehension and two of those sections have here it is for the third time)

  • John

    What are your feelings on extended time for these tests? A recent Chicago Trib article claimed that more than 10% of public high school students in Illinois get special accommodations (mostly extra time).

    I understand that many kids are dealt a poor hand in regard to LDs but it seems almost nonsensical to pick an arbitrary amount of extra time (nice round # like 50% or 100%) to put on to a test that seems to be specifically testing how fast the test taker can think.

    • educationrealist

      The ACT is very stingy about granting extra time. The SAT, which doesn’t give nearly the same emphasis to time, grants extensions like candy. Given that most of the kids who get granted extra time have parents who can pay for shrinks, I am bothered by the criteria, which gives an advantage to those kids. Howevever, I’m also familiar with the students who have gotten extra time on the ACT, and they all needed it.

      The ACT time demands harken to a day when college students needed to prove they could not only read, but read quickly in order to meet the academic demands of a rigorous college reading schedule. We are loooooong past those days. Instead, we have kids who could prove they can read and analyze data if the time demands were less ruthless and would be able to test out of remediation.

      I believe that both the SAT and the ACT should be given with two different time criteria: the existing one and one that adds about 10 minutes to each section (in the ACT case, I’d actually cut the time required for the English section on the top level). The students should be able to select which version they take, and the version taken should be noted on the score. Schools could require the stricter time version if they wanted to. I suspect most would not.

      Would scores be higher? My sense is that SAT scores would not see a big boost, but the ACT averages in reading and science would improve dramatically.

      This is kind of a disorganized response; I’ve got some other writing on this somewhere and I’ll post more on it later. Good question, by the way.

  • John

    Thank you for your response. I am relatively new to the topic as my oldest is only a rising sophomore, but I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the subject (and I’ve actually sat down and taken both tests). From what I understand, score reports used to denote tests taken with accommodations, but the test makers were sued to have the designation removed. I think your solution is very clever but I’m not sure the type of people who made a big stink in the past about identifying accommodated test takers would be happy with it (would selective schools penalize applicants who avoided the more time-rigorous test even if they didn’t require it?).

    It is a touchy subject and of course you are right about the link between income and LD diagnoses. The Tribune article cites the large percentage of accommodated test takers in affluent suburbs compared to Chicago public schools (some of which have zero students receiving accommodations). The numbers in the article are just staggering (20% of kids at some of these schools). Here is the article…


    Anyway, thank you for your comments. I am making my way back through your older blog posts, really good stuff, thanks!

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  • Stephanie Cannon

    Very interesting…I appreciate your honesty and insight. My son just took a practice SAT/ACT combo test (offered thru Kaplan) and scored 1890 SAT composite (83%) and 28 ACT composite (93%). I was thinking of having him take an ACT prep course, but after reading this post, now I’m thinking he should take the SAT prep course, as you suggest, but still have him take both the ACT and SAT tests. Do you really think the SAT prep course is transferable to the ACT? The prep course I’m thinking of signing up for offers 4 practice tests (either SAT or ACT), so wouldn’t it be better to practice the ACT, especially because of the time requirements? Just wondering if you have any more insight into this topic. Thanks very much.

  • Stephanie Cannon

    You are correct…there are very few ACT prep courses!

  • educationrealist

    There are far fewer experts in the ACT, and since most of the ACT is timing, it’s something he can practice on his own. The SAT course will cover the content. At that level of ability, make sure he is looking at a class with lots of high achievers–did you read my SAT Test Prep for the Ultra Rich? You might find that helpful.

    I recommend the red book for ACT prep, as well as Kaplan for backup.

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