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ACT, SAT, or Both? Deciding which Path is Best

This debate may be familiar to many of you. ACT? SAT? Both? Some students and families enter junior year with a perfectly clear answer to those questions, but the reasons behind those decisions may be less clear. Do any of these sound familiar?

He’ll take the ACT, of course. He wants to attend a school in the Midwest.

We’re an SAT family. Her older brother scored much better on the SAT.

Of course I want to prepare for both exams!

The ACT and SAT originated in different places, for different purposes, and developed different reputations over the years. Despite the many changes to each test, some of those perceptions persist.

The SAT, originally developed by the College Board for use in admissions to elite, northeastern schools, remains more popular on the coasts than in the Midwest. The ACT came later, designed to provide an admissions test for regional and public universities that didn’t use the SAT; it is still more popular in the Midwest than the SAT.

Although these regional patterns persist regarding which test students tend to take, the initial reason for those patterns – which test your college of choice might accept – no longer holds. The final school to accept the ACT finally did so in 2007, meaning that the choice of which test to take is really up to the individual student.

Until the roll-out of the Redesigned SAT in March of this year, our goal as tutors was to encourage each student to take both a practice ACT and a practice SAT before deciding which test to prepare for. There were substantial differences in the structure, with the ACT favoring fewer, longer sections and the SAT preferring more, shorter ones. The ACT had the dreaded Science section to contend with, while the SAT tested those also-dreaded vocabulary words. Many students would score about the same on each test, and choose based on their preference, while some would perform significantly better on one than the other.

The discussion of which test to choose has been complicated somewhat since the SAT redesign. The new SAT features fewer, longer sections, just like the ACT. It has done away with the vocabulary sections. And while the SAT hasn’t added a Science section, the charts and graphs that permeate each part of the test will look somewhat familiar to those who have spent time with the ACT.

There are still differences, though, between the ACT and the SAT, that one should consider when deciding between the two exams, and they don’t have anything to do with the geographical distribution of your college list.

First, how strong are you at math? On the SAT, math counts for half of your score, while on the ACT math makes up only ¼. That’s a significant difference. Consider, also, how well you’ll fare without a calculator, as the SAT has a section that must be completed without one.

How much do you want to improve your score? Because of the changes to the SAT, there is much less practice material available than for the ACT, which means fewer opportunities to practice and improve your score. If you’re looking for a significant boost, you might lean towards the ACT.

How much do you struggle with timing? The timing on the ACT is more difficult for some students. The SAT provides more time per question, which might be an asset. Taking a practice version of each will help you to know if that is the case for you.

A final consideration is that the SAT, during and since the redesign, has been a bit unstable. There have been data breaches, score delays, and debates over how the new scores stack up to the old ones.

If you know you’ll be taking an ACT through school, or (for those who haven’t already taken it) you plan to prepare for the PSAT, those factors might influence your choice as well. The goal is to prepare for only one exam. The ACT (or SAT) is only one part of your college applications, and your college applications are only one part of your life. Preparing for both tests – or choosing the wrong one – is a recipe for doing more work than necessary and taking time away from all of those other activities and classes that make up your high school career.

By Audrey Hazzard, Premier-Level Tutor

You Received Your PSAT Scores. Now What?

The PSAT occupies a strange in-between place in the world of standardized testing. In terms of admissions, the PSAT doesn’t “count.” Colleges will only ask for your ACT or SAT scores. For most students (where most equals 97%) the PSAT doesn’t do much anything at all. It’s just practice.

It can help you decide whether you want to take a real SAT, or whether the ACT might be a better fit for you. If you think you will do better on the SAT, consider taking a full-length practice SAT (along with your practice ACT) to be sure. There are some timing differences between the PSAT and the SAT that might affect your performance. If you’ve already decided to focus on the ACT, think carefully about whether you want to change gears now.

However, unlike the PLAN or ACT Aspire, the approximate equivalents of the PSAT in the ACT-universe, for some students, the PSAT can matter. And because of that some (where some equals about 50,000 nationwide), the PSAT is kind of like Schrodinger’s standardized test. It might count. It might not.

Before scores were released, you probably had some idea where your score might fall; now you know. The cat is out of the box. You can properly contextualize your PSAT experience, progress beyond this uncertain, liminal space, and move on with your life.

Or, maybe not.

Based on estimates of this year’s cutoffs (emphasis on estimates), the answer to “does this score matter much?” is either “no” or “possibly.”

If, based on the estimates, your score is significantly below the projected cutoff in your state, (this is true for the most students, even those who study and work hard and are bright and who will have excellent college options down the road) then the PSAT was practice. It gave you a bit of information about how you might do on an SAT.

If you think you might end up a Semifinalist, you should prepare for and take an SAT. You’re likely to do well on the SAT, especially with some additional practice, and having an SAT score that validates your PSAT is one of the requirements of advancing to Finalist status. However, be aware that you won’t know whether you’re a Semifinalist until September. Counting on it probably isn’t helpful, and driving yourself mad speculating likely won’t help either. National Merit is only one source of scholarships; if your test scores are in this range, it’s likely not your only option. Keep researching, and studying, and doing what you’ve been doing all along.

If your PSAT scores are better than you hoped, congratulations! If they are lower than expected, take heart: there’s time yet to prepare for the “real” test, whichever one you choose.

By Audrey Hazzard, Premier-Level Tutor

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.

PSAT Results

PSAT scores are finally released, about a month after they were initially expected. While some students are still having difficulty accessing their scores, those who have been able to get in have been confronted with scores that look quite different from previous PSATs.

Total PSAT scores are between 320 and 1520. The total score is a combination of the Math and “Evidence-Based Reading and Writing,” each of which is scored between 160 and 760. While these score ranges are not the same as the SAT – the upper and lower limits are shifted down by 40 points – College Board maintains that they are basically predictive of a student’s performance on the SAT.

The Selection Index will appear lower this year due to the new scoring ranges. For the class of 2016 (the last class to take the “old” PSAT), the highest possible score was a 240, and state-by-state NMSQT/PSAT cutoffs for semifinalists varied from 202 to 225. This year’s maximum Selection Index is a 228. Estimates of this year’s cutoffs vary considerably, and it might be easy to obsess over all of the possibilities if you believe your score is in the range for National Merit consideration.

Percentiles have also become more complicated on this year’s reports. Online score reports will include both percentiles – a “Nationally Representative Sample Percentile” and the “User Percentile.” The Nationally Representative sample will generally be higher, and provides the score as a percentile of a “nationally representative” group of 11th grade students. This measurement demonstrates how a student’s score compares to all high school juniors in the United States, including students who “don’t typically take the test.” The Nationally Representative Sample Percentile is the one that will appear on a students’ hard-copy report. The User Percentile is the percentile rank we’re more familiar with, comparing the scores of students who actually took the test. The User Percentile is only available online.

With so much uncertainty remaining, what useful information can we gain from the PSAT? If you’re still debating which test to focus on – the ACT or SAT – your PSAT score can help you decide. If you do decide to move forward with the SAT, a more thorough review of your PSAT can help. When your hard copy score report is released, take the time to review your test booklet for additional insights and make a study plan for the SAT.

Changes to the SAT

College Board has released four practice versions of the new, redesigned SAT. The revised test will be rolled out beginning with the 2015 PSAT this fall; the new SAT will begin in March of 2016. More information will continue to become available as we move closer to those dates (for example, the SAT score concordances won’t be released until May of 2016), but here are some of the changes to the SAT we know so far:

1) Scoring is changing.

The SAT will return to a 1600 point scale, with a 200-800 range for Math and a 200-800 range for Evidence-Based Reading and Writing. The Essay will be reported separately.

The PSAT will be on a new scale, too, with scores ranging from 320–1520. These will be divided between two sections, like the SAT, with each score between 160 and 760.

The College Board website indicates that scoring is still “subject to research,” which may mean changes are possible. See item #2.

2) Expect some delays in interpreting scores for the first test date(s).

College Board has been upfront about this. The first administration of the redesigned SAT will be in March of 2016, and College Board plans to release concordance tables in May of 2016. Concordance tables are important. They help establish what the new scores mean by comparing them to the previous scores. Students who take the test in March will not have much useful information to help them decide whether or not to retake at the next test date in May.

3) That looks familiar!

Many of the content and formatting changes to the redesigned SAT look a lot like things we’ve been working with on the ACT for years:

  • The essay is now optional, and reported as a separate score.
  • There will be fewer, longer sections. One major difference between the ACT and the SAT has been that the ACT had 4 sections, which lasted, on average, about 45 minutes each, while the SAT had 10 sections which lasted 20-25 minutes. The new SAT has 4 sections, which last an average of 45 minutes, while the new PSAT is down to 3 sections, which average 55 minutes each. With the longer sections, pacing may be more challenging.
  • The ACT has long included a handful of trigonometry questions, while the SAT has avoided them. The redesigned SAT includes trig questions.
  • While there is no Science section on the new SAT, there are plenty of opportunities to read charts and graphs. Both the Math and the Reading sections will include graph questions.
  • Students taking the current SAT have often been enervated by the onerous, even noxious, practice of learning a plethora of vocabulary words for the Sentence Completion questions. The dearth of such questions on the redesigned SAT might strike you as serendipitous.  Like the ACT, the redesigned SAT Reading test will focus on passages, and any vocabulary questions will involve a student’s ability to understand a word’s meaning in the context of the passage.
  • The redesigned SAT, like the ACT, will now include several different subscores.
  • Like the ACT, the new SAT will no longer deduct points for incorrect answers. (In other words, no more “guessing penalty.”)
 

4) There’s a new type of math section.

There are two Math sections on the redesigned SAT. One does not allow calculators. It’s the shorter of the two Math sections, and it includes 20 questions to be completed in 25 minutes. Some of those questions are “grid-in” or student-produced response questions.

5) The essay is a longer, and has new requirements.

The new, optional Essay section will be 50 minutes, and will involve analyzing source material in order to answer the prompt. This is a departure from the broad, open-ended type of question that appears on the current SAT.

We’re here to help! Navigating the new SAT will be an adventure for everyone – students, educators, and college admissions teams alike. There’s still a lot of uncertainty around the new tests, and we will be researching and providing the best information to help guide you through the process.