Thanks to an expanded calendar, test takers can sit for the SAT or ACT (or sometimes even both exams) nearly every month of the year. This plethora of options combined with the high stakes nature of the exams invites a certain level of gamesmanship. If every other aspect of the test experience can be optimized, some people wonder, perhaps the actual month an exam is administered can accrue an advantage to a strategic test taker. Consequently, rumors regarding the relative difficulties of different test dates circulate around the fringes of formal test prep, occupying an intellectual dark web of testing conjecture and voodoo. Is there any truth to this persistent idea that some SAT or ACT test dates might be easier than others?
The simple answer is both no and yes, but the devil, as they say, is in the details.
As we know, the test makers shoulder the Herculean task of administering exams that effectively rank an entire cohort of college-bound seniors across the normal distribution, otherwise known as the bell curve. The bulk of test scores in any given year should fall within the big part of the bell curve. Thus, the sneaking suspicion that some test dates might be scored more generously than others because of the population sitting for a given date–think seniors and advanced juniors in fall versus juniors and advanced sophomores in spring–contradicts the way these exams are actually scored. Earlier this year, I had a long and fascinating conversation with test expert Aaron Golumbfskie of Prep Matters on how the SAT is scored that effectively put to bed the persistent myth about whether some test dates were predictably easier than others.
This does not mean, however, that any given SAT or ACT matches every single other one in every measurable dimension of difficulty. On the contrary, you are almost assured that at least one section of an official test is noticeably easier or harder than others you’ve seen, much to the chagrin of the aforementioned test takers.
As challenging as taking the ACT or SAT can be, creating such a test is infinitely more complex. A perfect standardized exam matches every other exactly in terms of content distribution and item difficulty, which is no mean feat for complex assessments such as our beloved college entrance exams. Not only do armies of content experts and psychometricians toil over individual test questions for months at a time to piece together perfect sections, but analysts have estimated the cost to produce a single SAT to be as much as one million dollars. Combine human frailties with the flawed design models the test makers appear to be adopting these days, and you have a perfect recipe for imperfection. Too bad a savvy test taker cannot exploit this weakness, but predicting which section will be easier on any given day is impossible, as such inconsistencies are entirely accidental!
Our more nuanced answer to whether some SAT or ACT test dates might be easier than others is that some surely are, but that there is no predictable way to take advantage of the phenomenon. Instead, focus on what you can control. The easiest SAT or ACT date is the one you can effectively prepare for and focus on.