ACT & New SAT Compared

Section breakdown of the ACT and SAT (including breaks):


Revised SAT

English – 75 questions, 45 minutes

Reading – 52 questions, 65 minutes

Math – 60 questions, 60 minutes

Break – 10 minutes

Break – 10 minutes

Writing and Language – 44 questions, 35 minutes

Reading – 40 questions, 35 minutes

Math (no calculator) – 20 questions, 25 minutes

Science – 40 questions, 35 minutes

Break – 5 minutes

Break – 10 minutes (with writing)

Math (calculator) – 38 questions, 55 minutes

Writing – 40 minutes (optional)


Break – 2 minutes, can’t leave room (with writing)

Test is finished

Writing – 50 minutes (optional)

Total time (without writing): 3 hours, 5 minutes

Total time (ACT + writing): 3 hours, 55 minutes

Total time (without writing): 3 hours, 15 minutes

Total time (SAT + writing): 4 hours, 7 minutes

Many of the changes to the SAT bring it closer to the ACT: the longer sections, the switch to an optional essay, the content of the math test (pre-algebra, algebra, geometry, and trig), the graph questions sprinkled throughout the test (resembling ACT Science questions), the elimination of short essay passages in the reading, the removal of archaic, obscure vocabulary questions, and the transition to four answer choices instead of five.

But while the tests look more alike than they have in the past, there are also differences between the revised SAT and the ACT. In the Reading section of the SAT, students can expect five passages instead of four. There are also questions that evaluate a student’s ability to interpret the emotions of characters within a passage, which is something that is largely absent from the ACT. There are also new, evidence-based questions that require students to answer questions that give support for previous questions they’ve answered. If they miss the first question, it will be difficult to get the second one correct.

On the Writing and Language test, the question types are almost identical to those found on the ACT English section, but on the SAT, students will have 36% more time to answer those questions. On the surface, that extra time seems advantageous. Timing on the ACT English section is not, however, usually a problem for students. With so much extra time on the SAT, they might find themselves second guessing and changing correct answers in the remaining time.

The SAT math test now focuses less on geometry and more on algebra – another point of differentiation between the two exams. The questions are generally more difficult, but students have more time to solve them. There’s also an emphasis placed on solving systems of equations. The no calculator section of the test could pose a new challenge for students who typically rely on them heavily. Student produced response questions (often referred to as “grid-in” questions by students), where students must supply their own answer to instead of choose from provided multiple choice options, are still present on the SAT and not on the ACT.

Overall, students can expect trickier wording on the SAT. The longer sections will make it difficult for some students to concentrate. The advantage of timing, however, likely still rests with the SAT: students have more time per question in each section of the exam than they do on the ACT. Some students, however, may find this more hurtful than helpful. There’s still a stronger emphasis on vocabulary than there is on the ACT, but the words being testing are not as difficult. At the end of the day, which test is “better” or “easier” is extremely subjective; different students will prefer and perform better on different things. That’s why it’s important, as always, for students to take both an ACT and a SAT practice test to see where their strengths lie.


ACT & SAT Concordance Controversy

Concordance, noun.

According to Oxford Dictionaries,

1 An alphabetical list of the words (especially the important ones) present in a text, usually with citations of the passages concerned: a concordance to the Bible

2 formal Agreement: the concordance between the teams’ research results [emphasis added]

The second definition is the one we’re concerned with here. “Agreement.” See also: harmony, consensus, and basically not being embroiled in debate.

On May 9th, the SAT released its promised concordance tables for the redesigned SAT, spelling out its suggested equivalencies between the new SAT, the old SAT, and the ACT. The stated goal of the concordance tables is “to help college admission officers and others compare scores” across different tests.

Seems reasonable enough, right? Similar tables existed for the old SAT and ACT, produced in collaboration between ACT and the College Board. They worked together, analyzed a year’s worth of data, and produced concordance tables considered “the gold standard in concordance.”

This time is different. The SAT produced these tables unilaterally, based on data from only one administration of their new test, using a method that the ACT finds suspicious and unreliable. The ACT is “not having it.” Really. That’s a quote from their statement, released on May 11th , making clear their objections to the tables released by the SAT:

“ACT cannot support or defend the use of any concordance produced by the College Board without our collaboration or the involvement of independent groups, and we strongly recommend against basing significant decisions—in admissions, course placement, accountability, and scholarships—on such an interim table.”

So, the College Board says the tables are intended for use in admissions, while the ACT says they are unreliable and shouldn’t be used for anything “significant.” ACT points out that a sample size of one administration is insufficient to draw statistically significant data, especially given that “students willing to take the first iteration of a test that has undergone a major overhaul are likely quite different from the typical student.”

The tables do seem quite different from what we saw with the previous concordance, with similar-looking SAT scores comparing to lower ACT scores than before. So, for example, a 25 on the ACT concorded with an 1150 (Critical Reading and Math) on the “old” SAT, but that same 25 lines up with a 1220 on the new College Board tables. To put it another way, if you got a 1200 on the old SAT (CR+M), you’d find that equivalent to about a 26-27 on the ACT. A 1200 now lines up with a 25. This may lead to confusion among students who took the old version or are familiar with the older scores, although the tests are quite different, so there’s no reason at all to compare the old and new scores – except for the fact that they’re on the same scale.

Confusion has been standard throughout the roll-out of the redesigned SAT. Attempting to draw concordance between the ACT and the new SAT without consulting ACT was an interesting choice on the part of the College Board. The ACT is firm in denouncing the new concordance tables, stating that the data falls short of “the standard you should expect from a standardized testing agency.” One can’t help but wonder why the previous, more rigorous and collaborative, approach to concordance was abandoned in this case.