Students aiming for admission to a U.S. university will doubtless be familiar with the SAT and ACT, two different aptitude tests that are designed to enable admissions tutors to assess the suitability of applicants to academic study. What they may not realise, however, is that the SAT has recently undergone its biggest overhaul for decades – a change that has seen it shift focus onto testing students’ ability to use evidence, analyse data, and apply basic and complex knowledge to higher education or career-related topics.
The change will come as welcome news for those who had criticised the confusing structure of the old SAT, which had ten different sections to the ACT’s four, and was believed by many to be too far removed from what students would actually be learning at university – and indeed what they had been learning at school. This was doubtless among the reasons why the SAT was losing ground to the competing ACT, but how do the two compare now?
The revamped SAT, which was first taken in the U.S. in March this year (and in May throughout the rest of the world), has seen numerous changes, including the move from a mandatory essay to an optional one. Furthermore, there is a general shift towards keeping it focused on what will actually be useful for higher education and career readiness, including a greater concentration on the application of knowledge, skills and understanding. There are changes to the practicalities of the examination, too; calculators are now only allowed in some parts of the mathematics section, not all of it, and the ¼ point penalty for an incorrect answer has been taken away as part of an overall simplification of scoring.
The re-designed SAT is (intentionally, one surmises) now much more similar to the ACT than the old SAT. Both have optional essays, with the ACT offering 40 minutes to complete this and the SAT offering 50 minutes; the score for the essay does not contribute to the final score for either SAT or ACT.
Alongside the optional essay, the sections of the new SAT are split into Reading, Writing and Language, and Mathematics, the latter being further divided into calculator and non-calculator components. For the ACT, the sections alongside the optional essay are English, Mathematics, Reading and Science – the latter notable in its absence from the SAT structure, though scientific questions and approaches are incorporated into the rest of the paper. Indeed the scientific knowledge required for both the SAT and the ACT is minimal; both tests are more concerned that the candidate understands the application of scientific facts given in the passages for comprehension, rather than having to use any extra or learnt scientific knowledge. In both tests, the emphasis is on the interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem solving, of the information supplied.
The re-designed SAT’s Reading section looks a lot more like that of the ACT, with longer passages of 500-750 words for students to analyse. The SAT Reading section now includes classic texts and new ‘evidence questions’ that require students to link their answers with specific passages of text. The ACT, on the other hand, focuses more generally on comprehension. In the Writing section, the new SAT looks very much like the passage-based structure used in the ACT English section – but with half the number of questions. Both the SAT and ACT Mathematics sections now include trigonometry, (although the ACT is probably more challenging, in including more trigonometry and geometry, without providing the formulae).
The College Board provides an interesting table of side-by-side comparisons. On the face of it (and which will come as no surprise, this being the College Board website), the new SAT seems to have the edge over the ACT.
The changes we have just described merely scratch the surface in comparing the similarities and differences between the new SAT and the ACT. Early insights from those who have already taken the new SAT examination suggest that although students seem to prefer the new-look SAT, 58% said that they found the length of the sections “tiring” (actually overall it is about the same length as both the old SAT and the ACT – although one is now given more time for the essay writing in the former). 41% said that they found the mathematics section harder than they had expected. Most students will only have known either the old or the re-designed test, so comparisons are difficult. With the new SAT still in its infancy, there is less information around and fewer anecdotes about taking the test. However, there is sufficient material available to know what to expect, and the message is clear: preparation for either the SAT or the ACT still requires familiarity with the format and practice to maintain speed, accuracy and stamina.