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The Old SAT vs. the New SAT

In the last sixty-three years, the SAT has only undergone one major change, which occurred in 2005 when the test added a grammar- and essay-based Writing score. But the College Board will be stirring things up once again, this time only eleven years later, when it debuts the redesigned SAT in March of 2016. This new college-readiness assessment will more closely align with Common Core State Standards and it will more closely resemble the ACT. Consider a comparison of the three tests:

General Test Information

Quarter point penalty for guessingNo penalty for guessingNo penalty for guessing
Three sections: Math, Reading, WritingThree sections: Math, Reading, and Writing & LanguageFour sections: English, Math, Reading, and Science
Composite score based on three scored sections:
Math, Reading, and Writing
Composite score based on two scored sections:
Math and Evidenced-Based Reading and Writing
Composite score based on four scored sections:
English, Math, Reading, and Science
Composite score reported from 600-2400Composite score reported from 400-1600Composite score reported from 1-36
Required EssayOptional Essay (although required bymany colleges)Optional Essay  (although required bymany colleges)
Five answer choicesFour answer choicesFour answer choices
Length: 3 hours, 45 minutesLength: 3 hours, 45 minutes without Essay
or 4 hours, 35 minutes with Essay
Length: 2 hours, 55 minutes without Writing (the essay)
 or 3 hours, 25 minutes with Writing


The Mathematics SectionThe SAT Math TestACT Mathematics Test
Three Math sections Two Math sections
(one is similar to 2005-2015 SAT; the other is similar to ACT)
One Math section
Calculator allowedCalculator not allowed on one math sectionCalculator allowed
54 questions (70 minutes)58 questions (80 minutes)60 questions (60 minutes)
44 multiple choice questions and
10 student-produced response questions
45 multiple choice questions and
13 student produced response questions
60 multiple choice questions
Occasional "item set"
(multiple questions about same topic or figure)
Frequent "item sets" Occasional "item set"
All questions worth 1 pointOne "Extended Thinking" question worth four pointsAll questions worth one point
Content tested: Arithemtic, Algebra, Algebra II, Geometry, Coordinate Geometry, and Data Analysis, Statistics, and ProbabilityContent tested: All of the content on the 2005-2015 SAT plus Trigonometry and some additional Geometry relationshipsContent tested: Same content as the redesigned SAT
Numbers and Operations (20-24% of questions), Algebra and Functions (35-39%), Geometry (25-30%), Data Analysis, Statistics, and Probability (11-13%)Algebra (35%), Problem Solving and Data Analysis (28%), Advanced Algebra/Algebra II (27%), Geometry and Trig (10%)Pre-Algebra (20-25%), Elementary Algebra (15-20%), Intermediate Algebra (15-20%), Plane Geometry (20-25%), Coordinate Geometry (20-25%), Trig (5-10%)
Notes: The redesigned SAT is focusing significantly more on Algebra than are the other two tests. It is also increasing its focus on word problems, reporting the highest average "words per math item" on the three tests. Finally, it is featuring an nearly equal ratio of contextual ("real world") math problems to conceptual math problems; the other two tests more heavily focus on conceptual questions.


The Critical Reading SectionThe SAT Reading Test (part of Evidence-Based Reading and Writing)ACT Reading Test
Three Reading sectionsOne Reading sectionOne Reading section
67 questions (70 minutes)52 questions (65 minutes)40 questions (35 minutes)
19 Sentence Completion (vocabulary) questions
48 Passage-Based Reading questions
52 Passage-Based Reading Questions40 Passage-Based Reading Questions
Four short passages (two of which are about a related topic)
Five long passages (two of which are about a related topic)
Five long passages (two of which are about a related topic)Five long passages (two of which are about a related topic)
Passages  from Natural Sciences, Humanities, Social Sciences, Literary Fiction1 Literature passage, 2 History/Social Studies Passages, 2 Science Passages1 Literature passage, 1 Humanities Passage, 1 Social Studies Passage, 1 Natural Science Passage
Number of questions following long passages varies10 to 11 questions per passage10 questions per passage
All questions are about the passageSome questions are about the tables or graphs that accompany some of the passagesAll questions are about the passage
Extended Reasoning (63-75%), Literal Comprehension (6-9%), Vocabulary-in-Context (18-24%)Extended Reasoning (30-40%), Literal Comprehension (20-30%), Vocabulary-in-Context (13-17%), Command of Evidence (15-20%), Data Interpretation (10-12%)Extended Reasoning (50-60%), Literal Comprehension (30-40%), Vocabulary-in-Context (5-10%)
Vocabulary is tested in 19 Sentence Completion questions and 4-6 vocabulary-in-context questions from the passagesVocabulary is tested in 8-10 vocabulary-in-context questions from the passages (as well as in 2-4 questions the Writing section)Vocabulary is tested in 2-4 vocabulary-in-context questions from the passages (as well as in 2-3 questions in the English section).
Notes: The redesigned SAT is using passages that have a significantly higher text complexity rating than passages on the 2005-2015 SAT and ACT; some are rated as high as grade level 16. The test has added two new types of questions to the reading section: Command of Evidence and Data Interpretation. The Command of Evidence questions ask students to pinpoint where in the passage they found an answer. The Data Interpretations refer to tables or graphs that accompany two of the passages. In the easiest questions, they are simply asked to analyze the graphic. In more difficult questions, they must synthesize the data from teh graphic with the information in the text.


The Writing SectionThe SAT Writing and Language Test (part of Evidence-Based Reading and Writing)ACT English Test
Three Writing sections: one essay and two multiple choice sectionsOne Writing sectionOne English section
49 grammar questions (35 minutes)44 questions (35 minutes)75 questions (45 minutes)
43 sentence-based questions
6 paragraph-based questions
44 passage-based and graphic-based grammar questions75 passage-based grammar questions
25 Improving Sentences questions
18 Identifying Sentence Error questions
6 Improving Paragraphs questions
4 passages with 11 questions each  5 passages with 15 questions each
No passages1 careers passage, 1 history/social studies passage, 1 science passage, 1 humanities passagePassage subject areas not specificed
No passages1 nonfiction narrative, 1-2 argument passages, 1-2 information/explanatory text passagePassage formats not specified
Content tested: Usage and grammar, sentence structure, rhetorical skillsContent tested: All of the content on the 2005-2015 SAT plus punctuation and degree of formalityContent tested: All of the content on the 2005-2015 SAT plus punctuation and degree of formality
Grammar and Usage (80-85%), Rhetorical Skills (15-20%)Grammar and Usage (45%), Rhetorical Skills (55%), Data Interpretation (2-4%)Grammar and Usage (45-60%), Rhetorical Skills (40-55%)
Required essayOptional EssayOptional Essay
Notes: The redesigned looks nearly identical to the ACT at first glance, but closer examination will reveal that the new SAT passages have a higher degree of text complexity and the addition of tables and graphs. The focus of the Writing test has shifted from grammar, mechanics, and usage to rhetorical skills. There is increased focus on diction, including commonly confused words and homophones. The 1 or 2 Data Interpretation questions are quite basic in the Writing section.


No Science sectionNo dedicated Science sectionACT Science Test
No Science questionsData Interpretation Science questions peppered in the Math, Reading, and Writing sections40 questions (35 minutes)

The redesigned SAT offers students much more time per question on all sections compared to the current test and the ACT. For this reason, some students may be drawn to the new assessment. The increased difficulty, however, will undoubtedly prove challenging for some test takers. We highly recommend that students take both the SAT and the ACT at least once to see which test plays to their strengths and which test exposes their weaknesses.