Act vs. Sat by Mark Greenstein, J. D both the act and new sat present obstacles and opportunities for students with learning differences

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By Mark Greenstein, J.D

Both the ACT and new SAT present 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 is a three-hour and 25-minute, multiple-choice test made up of four sections: English, math, reading comprehension and science reasoning. A fifth section, a written essay is optional and given at the end of the multiple-choice sections. The essay writing section gives students 30 minutes to respond to one open-ended question. The essays are scored on a 0–6 basis by two individuals, typically current or retired teachers enlisted by Pearson Management. Logically supporting a position, writing with clarity and using good grammar are the ostensible criteria. 


The SAT is three hours and 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 toward a student’s score. The essay score comprises about 25 percent 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 introduced, but scores in actuality average slightly above 500. 

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 percent additional time. The SAT omits the equating section for students granted additional time, saving about 40 minutes and making total test time exactly five hours. Students granted more than 50 percent extra time arrange with their school to have an unlimited ACT session. For the 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. At the time just under 5 percent 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 a doctor. Not all who seek consideration are approved. Of the 50,000 who sought ACT special accommodation in 2004, 88 percent 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 critical reading of the SAT. 

• Someone who is a good math person will do better on the ACT. 

• Students with no trig are slightly hurt on ACT. 

• 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” or students who are willing to be coached have an advantage on the SAT. 
Finally, timing is an issue for more students on the SAT than the ACT. The College Board expects 20 percent 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. On the ACT, the estimate is that 10 percent do not finish on time, yet even ACT experts admit this is hard to gauge because there is no guessing penalty.
A suggestion on test choice

For students who have 10 to 15 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 who don’t have the time or inclination to make an ACT versus SAT diagnosis, prep for the SAT. This allows students to avoid both the essay and the science reasoning, though it foists on them the need for a strong vocabulary. 

Finally, students who are starting at community college almost certainly do not need to present SAT or ACT scores. Even some four-year colleges 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. 
Mark Greenstein, J.D. is president of Ivy Bound Test Prep (

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