Go Ask Mom

Go Ask Mom

ACT or SAT: Which is right for your child?

Posted September 13, 2016

A new test means scores are likely to be low. The Department of Public Instruction is trying to manage expectations when scores are released Nov. 7, 2013.

Next month ushers in the early-fall-through-late spring college admissions testing season. This is when two acronyms --ACT and SAT -- will be on the minds of high school juniors and seniors everywhere.

Timing can be crucial: Take either test before the winter of junior year and a student risks burning out on it before hitting his or her peak score. Wait too long to take it the first time -- say, until the fall of senior year -- and a student has only one opportunity to earn a top score.

But just as important as when to take the test is deciding which test to take. Some parents encourage their children to take both the ACT and the SAT, but, in our experience, most students are better off picking one test and then taking it up to three times.

With superscoring, which virtually all colleges practice, a student’s highest section score of all the test dates is used, which encourages students to take these tests more than once. Colleges and universities maintain they don’t prefer one over the other, as long as applicants score in the percentile ranges they specify for each test. This is likely to be even more applicable now that the SAT, which unveiled a redesigned version last spring, resembles the ACT more than it did before.

Key changes to the SAT that make it more like the ACT include the elimination of the “guessing” penalty, four answer choices per question instead of five, vocabulary words used in context, and the integration of science texts in the reading section.

Still, there are critical differences and knowing these might help you as a parent guide your child toward one test over another. For instance, the new SAT math section has been heavily influenced by Common Core standards. As such, its primary emphasis is algebra and data analysis at the near-exclusion of geometry, trigonometry and higher-order math. Students who are taking Common Core math might have an easier time with the SAT math section, at least on their first attempt, than those who have taken math as discrete subjects.

One way to help decide which test to pursue is to look at your child’s scores on two preliminary tests North Carolina public schools offer as a free service. The PLAN, which is a scaled-down version of the ACT, is offered to sophomores across the state. Each student’s score report comes with a formula for converting their scores to what they might get on the actual ACT.

While a below-average score on the PLAN doesn’t predict poor performance on the ACT, a score that’s well above average is probably a good indication that the student will do fine on the ACT. Similarly, if a student scores in the 75th percentile or higher on the PSAT, which North Carolina public schools offer to sophomores in the fall, it’s likely he or she will do well on the SAT. (The PSAT is also available, for a fee, to juniors who think they might score high enough to compete in the National Merit Scholarship program.)

Going with whichever test your student did best at in the preliminary version is a sound strategy. If you don’t have this kind of data available, have your child take a practice SAT and ACT, both of which are available online. If one score is clearly better than the other based on national percentiles, go with that test.

We’ve developed a quiz to help you guide your child toward the test that will better showcase his or her abilities. Ask your child to consider the following 10 questions, all of which have Yes or No answers. Scoring criteria are at the end of test.

Each of the following 10 questions has only two choices: Yes or No. Even if “maybe” or “don’t know” more accurately reflects your response to some questions, please try to answer either Yes or No in order to get the best results.

If you took both the PSAT and the PLAN (pre-ACT), did you feel more confident after the PSAT? Yes No

Have you been taking Common Core math? Yes     No

Do you dislike science and/or feel lost reading about experiments and looking at graphic representations of data? Yes No

Would you find it stressful to do reading passages out of order, keep a very close eye on the clock, and possibly have to guess on a few questions? Yes No

Do you have the stamina/attention span for a solid hour of critical reading? Yes No

Are you OK with doing some grid-in (i.e., non-multiple choice) math questions as well as 20 math problems without a calculator? An example of a no-calculator question: If (x-1)/3 = k and k=3, what is the value of x? Yes  No

Do you have a fear of/underperform in higher-order math such as geometry and trigonometry? Yes    No

If you plan to take the essay part of the exam, which is optional on both the ACT/SAT, would you feel confident reading a text and writing a critical analysis of it using criteria such as how effectively the author uses stylistic or persuasive elements, evidence, and reasoning? Yes No

When answering a critical reading question, would you find it easy to point out the evidence that supports your answer? Yes No

How to Score the Quiz

Add up your Yes answers. If you got 5 or more Yes answers, it’s likely that the SAT will be best for you. If you got 5 or more No answers, on the other hand, it’s likely that the ACT will be your best bet. You should base your final decision, however, on how you do on ACT and SAT practice tests and/or the PSAT or PLAN.

Suzanne Wood is assistant director of Raleigh Tutoring, a freelance writer and mom of three. Raleigh Tutoring offers a variety of academic programs, including SAT and ACT prep.


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