Just when you think you have the SAT and ACT figured out, the testmakers can still surprise you. Our two estimable college entrance exams have never seemed more alike, and yet certain dramatic differences between the two have emerged. In the past, students who identified as avid readers tended to prefer the SAT, where Sentence Completions rewarded the prodigious vocabularies that result from growing up with your nose in a book. But the SAT has abandoned explicit vocabulary questions and the pendulum has now swung the other way: students who are stronger in reading and writing than in math will flock to the ACT in droves. This makes sense, because the ACT has always been a reading test.
ACT, Inc. committed long ago to rewarding real reading skills when the testmaker chose to base the ACT Reading Test on long passages that students actually needed to read to understand. The emphasis on long passages stood in contrast to SAT Verbal or Critical Reading questions, which tended to either test vocabulary independent of passages or test reading skills in smaller passages. The passage-based reading skills each exam tests remains very similar, but the ACT demands greater speed of comprehension.
The addition of Writing to the SAT continued the College Board’s commitment, established on both the PSAT Writing section and SAT II Writing Test, to testing grammar mechanics primarily through standalone question types. In contrast, the ACT English Test evaluates understanding of grammar mechanics and rhetorical skills through passage-based questions. Which approach was better? Well, the new SAT Writing Test looks more than a little bit like the ACT English Test.
Students who lack confidence in their grasp of high school biology, chemistry, and physics tend to shy away from the ACT for fear of the Science Test. However, this test section simply extends the testmaker’s reading focus to the understanding of graphs, charts, and tables. After all, graphical literacy is still literacy. Students require very little real science to do well on this section, but they do need to bring those powerful passage-based reading skills.
Nobody can seriously argue that reading comprehension trumps quantitative reasoning on the ACT Math Test. However, the preponderance of word problems signals the need to pay as much attention to text as to numbers. Testmakers love word problems, because students who know the math can still get questions wrong unless they read as carefully as they calculate.
All in all, passage-based reading skills support three-fourths of an ACT Composite score but only one-half of the SAT Total Score. SAT Math also requires greater facility with mental math and deeper conceptual understanding. If quantitative reasoning is your strong suit, by all means consider the SAT. But if reading is your thing, the ACT plays to your strengths. And if you’re not as skilled a reader as you need to be, your path is clear…