Wednesday, November 11, 2009


We often encounter students with learning differences who are concerned about how to manage their SAT exam. Many students, particularly in the eastern part of the country, don't automatically consider taking an alternate test that is accepted at virtually all colleges, the ACT.

There are a number of differences between the two tests that all students should consider when deciding which to take. Start by checking the website and admissions materials for the colleges to which you are interested in applying. Some colleges  may have specific requirements; for example, that students taking the ACT take the newer version of the test, which includes a writing section. Next, consider whether you will need to take SAT II Subject Tests for the colleges to which you would like to apply. These are offered in the categories of English, history, mathematics, science, and language, with several choices and levels in most categories. Every college website will specify what their requirements are for these, including what subject areas they want to see. Some schools require SAT II tests if you are submitting SATs but not if you are submitting ACT scores, since the ACT exam is based on four distinct subject areas: English, mathematics, reading, and science. Since the SAT II Subject Tests are administered by the College Board, just like the SAT, the requirements for accommodations are the same. If a student is granted testing accommodations for the SAT, she will have the same accommodations on the SAT Subject Tests.

The basic ACT is strictly multiple choice. There is an optional writing section which some schools require, but the basic test has no writing. This is a substantial difference from the SAT, where although two sections, mathematics and critical reading (formerly “verbal”) are multiple choice, the writing section is part of the basic exam and is not optional. Students for whom the physical act of writing is difficult or whose learning disabilities impact organizing written work might want to stick with the basic ACT exam, especially if they have difficulty obtaining the kinds of test accommodations they would like. Those students with disorders that result in impulsive behaviors may do better on the ACT where their scores will not be lowered if they guess on problems where they are not sure. The SAT deducts a quarter of a point for wrong answers, although there is no deduction for failing to answer a question.

Another difference between the ACT and SAT is the nature of the questions. As we have mentioned, the ACT focuses on subject matter content, so that students can study each area to improve their score. The SAT may have dropped the word “aptitude” from its name, but it still measures general reasoning and problem solving skills more than specific subject content. Students whose learning issues make them less comfortable with complex reasoning may find they are more comfortable with the ACT, whereas bright students who have not applied themselves to the content of their high school courses might do better on the SAT, where knowledge of specific course content is not as important.

The SAT is longer – 3 hours and 35 minutes (including the writing section), for those who take it without extended time. The ACT is only 2 hours and 55 minutes, but will last another 30 minutes if you need to take the optional writing section. Students with poor attention may find that they do better on the standard ACT.

One way of deciding which test works best for you is to try them both. Since this can involve signing up for both tests, applying separately to the College Board and ACT for the accommodations you may require, paying for two different tests, and actually taking them both, a far better way to evaluate which is right for you is to take practice tests.
There are real differences between the SAT and ACT that might make on or the other test a better fit for a particular student. Students with learning disabilities who will require testing accommodations should look at both tests, and possibly take one or more practice tests of each, to determine which test will best meet their needs.

You will be able to find much more information on this and other subjects in a book by our own Susan Yellin, Esq. and Christina Bertsch, entitled Life After High School: A Guide for Students with Disabilities and their Familes due out in spring 2010 from Jessica Kingsley Publishers. More information will appear on later blogs.

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