ACT vs. SAT? What You Need to Know About Changes to the SAT

The SAT, often seen as the end all and be all of standardized college entrance exams, is shaking things up. This week, College Board (the company behind the SAT) announced a new design to the SAT that will radically change the test starting in the spring of 2016. Many have cited this as a response to the growing use of the ACT by colleges and students in college applications.
The ACT has previously seen lower numbers of test-takers, but recent years have proved otherwise. As the ACT is now used as an exit exam in many states, students often have free access to this test, increasing its popularity. As well, many students find they perform better on the ACT due to a difference in content and format.

The main differences between the two tests are:

The SAT has a scoring penalty (¼ of a mark) for each wrong answer| The ACT has no scoring penalty.

The SAT tests students’ knowledge of obscure vocabulary| The ACT focuses more on reading and writing skills related to school curriculum.

Since 2005, a scored essay component of the SAT has been mandatory| The ACT has an optional essay portion which not all schools require.

The SAT does not have a specific science reasoning portion of the test.| The ACT tests science reasoning.

Many of these differences will be eliminated as of spring 2016.

Key changes to the SAT include:
• Optional essay: Currently, a perfect scaled score is 2400 points including the mandatory essay. In 2013, a perfect scaled score will reflect only the reading/writing and math sections, out of a possible 1600 points. The essay will also include a specific text prompt, and students will be asked to “write an essay in which you explain how the author builds an argument to persuade an audience”. This will allow students to use supportive evidence that graders can compare with the same source material for all test-takers.
• Elimination of the sentence completion section: Vocabulary will still be important in the other parts of the reading/writing section, where students will have to consider word choice. College Board also states that vocabulary will include more words students will use in the workplace and in academic pursuits, such as “synthesis” or “empirical”.
• Addition of “supporting evidence” in reading passages: Students will often be asked to select a quote which justifies their answer choice in the reading passages.
• Math content will focus on fewer topics: Math questions will focus on content the College Board finds is most useful in college level courses, and questions should reflect more realistic situations.
• Calculators will not always be permitted: Certain portions (but not all ) of the math section will disallow use of calculators.
• Graphs will be included in the reading and writing analysis: Students will be asked at times to interpret graphs and data to help inform their analyses of readings.
• Tests will be available online: The test will also still be available in traditional paper format.
• Passages throughout the test will include founding documents from American history: Every test will include at least one historical founding document, or a text that has been inspired by the discussion surrounding these documents(e.g. Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address).

How will this affect your preparation?

The College Board has been very explicit in sharing that one of the intents of the new design will be to create “productive preparation”, that “rewards real high school work”. Work done in high school is meant to be much more closely related to the test. However, preparation is still encouraged, as they have partnered with the Khan Academy, a free online educational website that will make material and instruction available to all those with internet access. Preparation is still important, but hopefully more relevant. Here’s how studying for the SAT might change for those planning to write the test in 2016:

• Less cue cards, more reading: The test has proposed to remove “SAT words” that aren’t applicable in everyday life. The updated vocabulary is meant to have nuanced meanings that differ based on context. Read, read, read, and expose yourself to challenging texts from many different subject areas to expand your vocabulary and understand words in a deeper, more meaningful way. We all know cue-card definitions are forgotten shortly after the test anyway!
• More focused math preparation: On April 16th, 2014, College Board will reveal a “blueprint” for the new test that will make content and subject matter clearer. Right now, they have stated that math will be focused more on three specific areas, including problem solving and data analysis, topics at “the heart of algebra”, and other topics closely related to advanced math such as calculus.
• Work on that mental math: If you rely solely on a calculator for every calculation, you will need to make sure skills related to math fluency are still intact. Math fluency and number sense will be tested.
• Focus on founding documents: There will be one founding document or related text on each SAT test that relates to issues such as “freedom, justice, or human dignity”. Students taking the test in countries outside of the U.S. will need to prepare. Unless you took American History throughout high school, this is the one section of the test that will not reflect your “real high school work”.
• Practice in critiquing others’ writing and arguments: The essay will no longer be supported by evidence that graders cannot reference. The essay will be analytical in nature, requiring analysis of an author’s opinion and development of an argument, as well as providing your own evidence to justify your explanation.
• Practice justifying your choice: Elimination of answer choices as a technique may not be as helpful. Many questions will require you to select evidence that supports your opinion, so when formulating opinions about passages you have read, practice justifying your thoughts with specific references to lines in the text.

While some critics refer to this overhaul of the SAT as an attempt to regain test-takers from the increasingly popular ACT, the College Board’s stated motives behind the changes are laudable. Aligning content more closely with the demands of high school and college, students can prepare in meaningful ways that will help them increase skills and knowledge applicable in their current studies and future academic endeavors. It will be interesting to see in the coming years if these changes are proven to predict first year academic success, as they suggest.

In the meantime, crack a book!

For more information on SAT and ACT preparation, contact Ruth Rumack’s Learning Space at 416.925.1225 or visit our website:


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