The Redesigned SAT: A Year Later

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One year ago, College Board discarded the SAT format they had used since 2005. The redesigned SAT launched in March of 2016 was a brand new format with the stated purpose of being more relevant in testing for material and methods learned in high school, including alignment with Common Core. In practical terms, College Board wanted to recover the market share lost to ACT the prior four years. Thus it’s no surprise the SAT now looks more like the ACT than the old SAT. Yet there are still some significant differences between the ACT and redesigned SAT.

First, here are some facts about the tests in general.

  • Almost all colleges accept ACT and SAT results on an equal basis.
  • For each of the past five years, more students have taken the ACT.
  • Both tests have sections on reading, writing (multiple choice) and math.
  • ACT has a science section but, curiously, it really doesn’t require students to have much science knowledge. Instead it tests for technical reading skills using data presented in tables, graphs and charts.
  • The SAT has 1600 total possible points, with 800 math and 800 reading-writing.
  • Each ACT section has 36 possible points, and the composite score is the average of those four sections (out of 36 possible).
  • Thus, SAT math counts for half the total SAT score while ACT math counts for 25% of the ACT composite score.
  • ACT gives students significantly less time to answer each question, requiring better time-management skills. It is common for students to run out of time on ACT sections until they learn how to use strategies to improve efficiency and accuracy.

The redesigned SAT adopts a number of features that ACT has used for many years. For starters, SAT used to deduct a quarter-point for each wrong answer, but now has no such penalty. The old SAT essay used to be required, but now it’s optional just like the ACT essay (the Writing section). The SAT reading and writing sections were changed to look more like ACT reading and English sections. Instead of adding a separate science section, the redesigned SAT includes some data tables in its reading section and data analysis questions in the math section.

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The following analysis breaks down the section-by-section differences between ACT and SAT.


The SAT now has 1600 possible points: Math (800) and Evidence-based Reading and Writing (800). The ACT includes four multiple-choice sections: English, Math, Reading and Science. Each section has a possible score of 36; the composite score is the average of the four sections. Both SAT and ACT exams take three hours, plus the optional essays. The SAT essay is 50 minutes and ACT Writing is 40 minutes.


SAT reading includes graphs, figures and diagrams, which ACT includes in the science section. SAT asks students to identify which line in the passage provides evidence to support their answer to the previous question. The SAT reading section allows 40% more time per question than ACT reading.


Both tests use multiple-choice questions to assess writing mechanics and rhetorical skills. SAT now asks grammar questions using the same format as ACT. SAT has both verbal and graphical questions; ACT has only verbal examples in the English section. Only SAT requires students to cite evidence for their chosen answers. SAT Writing & Language allows 30% more time per question than ACT English.


SAT math now accounts for half of the total SAT score, while ACT math is only 25% of the ACT composite score. On 35% of SAT math questions, no calculator is allowed; ACT allows calculators on all math questions. SAT has grid-ins on 12% of math questions, requiring students to bubble-in their own answers; ACT math is all multiple-choice with five answer choices. SAT allows 80 minutes to answer 58 questions, while the ACT time limit is much tighter: 60 minutes for 60 questions. SAT emphasizes algebra, basic math and data analysis while ACT covers a broader range of math topics.


The ACT science section is really a technical reading section rather than a test of prior science knowledge. Almost everything a student needs to know is provided in text, tables or graphs of data. Questions require students to interpret and recognize patterns in the data. The SAT has no science section, although science topics and data analysis are included in the three SAT sections.


SAT provides a passage and requires the student to analyze the author’s effectiveness. ACT provides three different perspectives on a given topic, and requires students to evaluate one, as well as explain their own position.

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  1. In late 10th grade or early 11th grade, take a full-length ACT practice test at Dogwood to experience the timing and feel of the test. See whether ACT or SAT (or PSAT) feels like a better fit. See which test yields a higher score. Then decide which test to prepare for first. Avoid bouncing back and forth between tests.
  2. If you haven’t already taken the PSAT (the same format as SAT), take a SAT and/or PSAT practice test. We administer proctored practice tests at no charge at the Dogwood center throughout the year, usually on Saturday mornings.
  3. If you scored in the 90th percentile or higher on the PSAT in 10th grade, consider doing some preparation for the PSAT in October of 11th grade. If you score in the top 3% nationally in junior year, you will earn recognition from the National Merit Scholarship program. The PSAT prep is essentially the same as SAT prep, so you’ll also be ready for the earlier SAT dates.
  4. Plan to take the ACT or SAT (or both tests) two or three times in junior year, starting as early as practical in 11th grade. Many students can benefit from starting test prep in the summer before junior year. Try to plan test prep for months when your workload isn’t already overwhelming.

Call Dogwood at 678-735-7555 or email to discuss strategic options for moving forward with testing, given your student’s specific needs. Testing is not a ‘one size fits all’ process. We’re here to help you customize a plan to help your child achieve his or her best results.

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