ACT vs SAT for Students with Learning Differences

Both the ACT and the SAT present both obstacles and opportunities for students with learning differences. This article attempts to let parents and counselors know what to expect of these two college entrance exams and concludes with recommendations for how to study and when. This article does not attempt to fit numerous strategies to students with specific learning disabilities.

The timing of the tests mentioned herein is as STANDARD regularly administered tests. I address added time for students who qualify in the final section of this article.

Summary of ACT vs New SAT
Essay (30 min, optional)Essay (25 min)
Grammar (45 min)Grammar (35 min)
60 min70 min
Need TrigNo Trig
ReadingCritical Reading
35 min70 min
4 passages4 passages
19 sentence comp.
Science reasoningNo science
35 min
No equating sectionEquating section
25 min
205 min + 30 min optional225 min
3.25 or 3.75 hrs
+ 30 min extra time
3.75 hours
+ 40 min extra time
$28 + $14 if doing Writing$41.50
Score choiceNo score choice
but colleges don’t hold the lower score against an applicant
Bottom Line: the tests have become similar. ACT remains a bit broader in content.

Description of the ACT

This is a 3 hr 25 min. multiple choice test in four sections: English, Math, Reading Comprehension, and Science Reasoning. A fifth section, a written essay, is optional and given at the end of the four multiple choice sections. Students wishing to impress colleges with their work on a 30-minute essay simply sign up to take the “ACT with Essay” and are assigned to different rooms.

The English section is more appropriately called “grammar”. The ACT demands that students identify errors that include: lack of clarity, punctuation problems, subject/verb disagreement, misused pronouns, redundancy, parallelism, wrong tense, misplaced modifiers, and poor word choice. The test also asks students to improve sentences and evaluate whether hypothetical changes make for effective improvements. At 75 minutes, this is the longest of the sections and comes first.

The Math section is 60 minutes and contains 60 questions. The categories here are: arithmetic, geometry, algebra, data interpretation, and trigonometry. There is no calculus, no use of logarithms, no use of the quadratic formula, no measuring areas under curves, and no volumes other than simple cylinders and rectangular solids. Most students have covered all the topics except trigonometry by the middle of their sophomore year. The 3 or 4 trig questions are fairly easy to master by simply knowing two trig equations. Thus the math is not high level, and most juniors are able to take advantage of the ACT based on their math coursework in sophomore year and earlier.

The Reading Comprehension section comprises four passages of 700 – 900 words, each followed by 10 questions. The passages are excerpts from previously published articles, and the ACT includes one for each of the following topics: fiction, social science, humanities, and natural science. This section does NOT call upon students’ prior knowledge; all answers can be reached using text material and inferences from the text. The section is 35 minutes, for 40 total questions, allowing on average 8.5 minutes for students to read, evaluate, answer, and bubble-in. For many students, Reading Comprehension is the section on which they are most pressed for time. Answer choices deserve scrutiny, for the difference between a right and wrong answer often turns on one word.

The Science Reasoning section, like the reading section, is 35 minutes and 40 questions. Here there are SEVEN passages, each describing an experiment or set of experiments, and the data resulting from those experiments. These 40 questions are testing data interpretation and reasoning; they do not test a student’s biology, chemistry, or physics background. Thus, students should not be fearful of not having prior coursework to succeed on the ACT science, as prior knowledge here is ALMOST irrelevant. The exception is that students who know basic terminology, like “degrees Centigrade” or “joules / sec.” have a comfort level that students not previously exposed to the terminology lack. Beyond this basic exposure, students are unlikely to begin with a coursework advantage. Indeed, the ACT goes out of its way NOT to present experiments that were likely given in a science textbook.

The fearsome aspect of the Science Reasoning section is the time limitation. Understanding and interpreting seven experiments in 35 minutes is daunting, and for the student who is new to the task, it is almost impossible. However, a bit of coaching dramatically reduces time pressure here. While the experiments can be complex, most of the QUESTIONS here are remarkably simple, so the well-coached student learns WHERE to quickly find answers and where to avoid distractions. Students coached in “what to look for and what is likely to be irrelevant” usually find they can get through all seven passages with a high success rate on the questions. They may not truly understand the experiment, or its implications, but they can get the minutia that leads to right answers.

The Essay Writing section was added to the ACT in 2005. In 30 minutes, students are to respond to ONE open-ended question. Through June 2005, all sample prompts and actual prompts have been related to the school experience, such as “should teenagers be required to maintain a C average in school before receiving a driver’s license?”, “should high schools require students to complete a certain number of hours of community service?”, “should schools start early in the morning?”, and “are high school sports generally beneficial?”. The essays are scored on a 0 – 6 basis by two individuals, typically current or retired school teachers enlisted by Pearson Management. Should the readers’ grades differ by two points or more, a third reader is brought in to evaluate the essay and that reader’s assessment carries extra weight. The essays are scored “holistically,” meaning there are no specific attributes for which readers give or deny points. Logically supporting a position, writing with clarity, and using good grammar are the ostensible criteria. Readers are not supposed to evaluate spelling and length of essay. It remains to be seen whether readers would ever give perfect scores to a gem that’s very brief and uses poor spelling.

Description of the SAT

The SAT, inaugurated in March 2005, is 3 hrs 45 minutes of pure testing time, broken into 10 sections. Three sections are Math, three are Critical Reading, three are Writing, and one is an Equating section that mimics one of the other multiple choice sections but does not count towards a student’s score.

The Math sections call upon students’ coursework in arithmetic, algebra I, and geometry. Like the ACT, there is no calculus, no use of logarithms, no use of the quadratic formula, no measuring areas under curves, and no volumes other than simple cylinders and rectangular solids. Unlike ACT, the SAT does not test trigonometry. Since the New SAT does not test what most of us define as Algebra II, it is suitable for almost any student who has completed sophomore year. The Math sections also include some data interpretation and incorporate a few problems that are better classified as logical reasoning. It is from these data interpretation and logical reasoning problems that the SAT Math gets its reputation for not correlating with classroom math, but only about 1/3 of the questions come from outside traditional high school curricula. Ultimately, the SAT Math requires resourcefulness, asking students in one problem to call upon both geometry and algebra, for example.

The Critical Reading sections comprise 19 sentence completion questions and 48 reading comprehension questions. Success on the sentence completions is based mainly on a student’s vocabulary, but somewhat upon reasoning using sentence structure. Success on the reading comprehension is presumed on a DECENT vocabulary, but the high level vocabulary that occurs is not directly testing in the questions that follow. Students who don’t know a high level / scholarly word that occurs in a passage will find either:

  • no question is asked of that word, or
  • they can infer the word’s meaning from the context.

As in the ACT, the SAT reading passages are selected from prior published works, but ones unlikely to have been read previously by students. Obscure journals and private reflections of lesser-known writers are the source for these passages. Answers to the questions posed by SAT require HIGH SCRUTINY, a bit more than on the ACT. The SAT has 5 answer choices (the ACT has 4), and sometimes one of the wrong answers is based upon a mere nuance of a word or phrase.

The Writing sections are a combination of a 25 minute required essay and 35 minutes of multiple choice asking students to identify errors, improve sentences, or improve paragraphs. The essays are also scored by two Pearson Management readers, also on a 0 – 6 scale, for a possible high of 12 points. SAT essay topics are more “macro” in nature than the ACT’s thus far. For example, the March 2005 topics included:

  • Is the opinion of the majority – in government or in any other circumstances – a poor guide?
  • Is creativity needed more than ever in the world today?
  • Are people better at making observations, discoveries, and decisions if they remain impartial?
  • Is a person responsible, through the example he or she sets, for the behavior of other people?

The essay score comprises about 25% of the “weight” of the student’s Writing score. The Essay score is combined with the 49 multiple choice questions to yield a 200 – 800 score. As with all SAT scores, 500 was the original median when the test was first introduced, but scores in actuality average slightly above 500. The Writing test is too new for the SAT to give actual averages, but I predict the first set of released average writing scores (due in January 2006) will show the Writing to be the highest of the three sections among students bound for four-year colleges.

ACT and SAT Accommodations for Students with Special Needs

While the scored content is no different, students granted extra time sit in different rooms for the testing. Both ACT and SAT offer rooms for students getting 50% additional time. The SAT omits the equating section for students granted additional time, saving approximately 40 minutes and making total test time exactly 5 hours.

Students granted more than 50% extra time arrange with their school to have an “unlimited” time ACT session. For SAT, the “unlimited” time is DOUBLE TIME, and students meet in regular test centers on successive days – a four hour session on Saturday and a four hour session on Sunday.

Both SAT and ACT will allow a reader for certain students, Braille tests for others, and electronic essay inputs for students whose limited motor skills keep them from writing legibly.

Students with extended time no longer have their scores “flagged”. Until 2003, colleges could see which applicants had taken the test under non-standard conditions. Most colleges did not discriminate against those who were granted extended time, but some did. In an effort to protect the wishes of member colleges that wished to retain the “flagging”, the College Board, publishers of the SAT, steadfastly litigated against parents demanding change. In 2002 The College Board settled a lawsuit brought by a Berkeley-based disability rights group and ended flagging in June 2003. The ACT soon followed and ended its flagging in October 2003. At the time just under 5% of SAT testers were granted special accommodation, but, as expected, that percentage has risen since then.

Getting special accommodations can be done through the school or though an MD. Not all who seek consideration are approved. Of the 50,000 who sought ACT special accommodation in 2004, 88% of the requests were honored, according to ACT spokesman Charles Parmalee. SAT approval rates seem similar, but the specific percentage is unavailable.

Which Test is Better for My Student?

Students with weak vocabulary will be hurt on the CR of the SAT. Someone unable or unwilling to absorb vocabulary who is also a good math person will do better on the ACT.

Students requiring double time test face a VERY arduous SAT. SAT and ACT length will be similar, but the ACT will be done in a student’s school, on her/his schedule.

Students with no trig are slightly hurt on ACT. However a good coach can address this area fairly quickly, and with 2 – 4 hours of extra effort most students can be ready for the ACT trigonometry.

Students flustered by charts and data interpretation will be hurt on ACT.

Students who are not CAREFUL readers will be hurt more on the SAT.

“Good testers” have an advantage on the SAT. This includes students willing to undergo coaching to BECOME good testers. The SAT lends itself more to coaching. Just understanding the guessing advantage alone gives a student an advantage over a good portion of test-takers. And the forced essay on the SAT is likely to yield an advantage for students who can take a short class combined with individualized essay evaluations.

Finally, timing is an issue for more students on the SAT than the ACT. The discrepancy has been reduced somewhat by SAT’s 2005 elimination of the “Quantitative Comparisons” section, but anecdotal evidence from my students shows that ACT yields fewer completion problems. The College Board expects 20% of testers not to finish the SAT. This figure is misleading though, for it masks the RUSHING and CARELESSNESS that attend students’ meeting tight time restrictions. I estimate 30% – 40% of students rush to finish sections in the SAT. For uncoached students, that figure is probably over 50%. On the ACT, the estimate is that 10% do not finish on time, yet even ACT psychometricians admit this is hard to gauge because with no guessing penalty, virtually all students are filling in answers at the end. In the Science Reasoning section, I suspect that 60% of the students are rushing / not finishing.

A Suggestion on Test Choice

For students who have ten to fifteen hours to diagnose which test will be better, take two ACTs contained in The Real ACT PrepGuide and two SATs contained in The Official SAT Study Guide. Use the Equating table (which shows relative percentiles) to judge which test is better and then prep only for that one test. For students testing under regular conditions, I am not a big fan of the PLAN or the PSAT as good diagnostics because they are only 2/3 the length of the actual test. However, for students who will be granted extended time, the PLAN and PSAT are more sensible.

For students who don’t have the time or inclination to make an ACT vs SAT Diagnosis, prep for the SAT. This allows students to avoid the Science Reasoning, though it foists on them the need for a strong vocabulary. The vocabulary building should be welcomed because it tends to help in other school endeavors and in life.

Finally, discern whether your student can afford to skip BOTH tests. Don’t allow your student to be caught up in testing just because everyone else is. Students who are starting at community college almost certainly do not need to present SAT or ACT scores, and even among 4-year colleges, some have dropped the SAT / ACT requirement. To these colleges, three years of grades and recommendations are satisfactory and they do not discriminate against students who choose not to give standardized test scores.