With the redesign of the SAT in 2016, the ACT and SAT became closer in what they are testing. However, there are still some key differences in the philosophy of the tests.
To understand this, it is helpful to go back through the history of the SAT. It was originally developed in the early 1900’s as a pure aptitude test, designed to measure thinking potential (basically, an alternative to an IQ test). Over the years, it has evolved away from that philosophy but still retains some “power” elements. This is represented in questions where it may not even be clear what is being asked initially – it requires critical thinking around decoding what the question even is before trying to arrive at the answer.
The ACT, on the other hand, was developed in the late 1950’s as an achievement test – measuring what students have already learned in high school. The choice to measure achievement vs. ability was partly a business decision (to separate it from the SAT) and partly another way of telling colleges how ready students were for college-level work. While the ACT has also evolved from its early roots, it has retained a “speed” element. Students are asked to answer a large number of very straightforward questions in a constrained amount of time. For most high school juniors, the ACT would be a fairly easy test if they had unlimited time to take it; the time pressure is generally what makes this a difficult test (and also why the ACT tends to be much stricter about granting extended time accommodations).
Similar Questions with Different Timing
An example of these concepts can be seen in the comparison of the SAT Writing section with the ACT English section. Both test the same basic skills: grammar, punctuation, editing, standard English conventions. The ACT asks 75 questions in 45 minutes, a pace of 36 seconds / question. The passages are typically 10th-11th grade reading difficulty and are easily understood. In contrast, the SAT asks 44 questions in 35 minutes, a pace of 48 seconds / question. At least one of the four passages given will be more difficult, at a 12th grade / freshman year of college reading level, with more difficult vocabulary.
An even greater difference can be seen on the reading sections. While both tests have passages of ~600 words and ten questions per passage, the ACT gives students 8 1/2 minutes per passage, while the SAT gives 13 minutes. ACT questions tend to be very direct and require quick lookups in the text, while the SAT questions often have more ambiguity or require more critical thought about the passage.
What does this mean for my student?
On the whole, colleges have decided that these tests are equally predictive of success and all 4-year colleges and universities in the U.S. take either test for admissions without favor. If a student does do better on one vs. the other, they need only submit the score from that test and can ignore the other.
Need more help deciding which test is right for your student? We offer a decision package to help make that call. Give us a ring at 610.688.6441 or follow the link below to learn more.