In February 2013, not many 8th graders would have been paying attention to the initial College Board announcements about overhauls of the PSAT and SAT. Those 8th graders are now juniors, and the College Board certainly earned their attention this month with the debut of the new PSAT. These lucky (?) students had the honor (?) of being the first cohort to experience the test’s extensive redesign.
Reactions were mixed, ranging from abject horror to “I guess it wasn’t that bad” to “What I expected.” Unprepped students were caught off guard by a 60-minute reading comprehension section (more than twice its previous length) and by a math section on which calculator use was disallowed.
As students contemplate what to make of the PSAT and the fast-approaching new SAT, it is not the tests’ features that are most relevant. Rather, what students must carefully consider is the unsettled context in which the SAT now sits and how that reality relates to their alternative: the ACT. In this post we’ll unpack those considerations, help you determine where to go from here, and lay out a strategic timeline.
Junior Year Testing Plan in Brief
− Schedule an ACT practice test in a proctored setting
− Finalize plans regarding test selection, test date, and test prep
October – January
− Begin focused prep, most likely for the ACT
− Don’t bother with old SAT without very good reason
− Take your first official sitting for ACT if ready
− Steer clear of the first administration of new SAT
− Take your first (or possibly second) official ACT
May or June
− Take Subject Tests if appropriate
− Take new SAT if an ACT alternative makes sense
− Retake ACT if needed
Detailed Rationale and Further Considerations
A decade ago, the PSAT provided the baseline score for students’ planning because a) the SAT was almost ten times more popular in California than was the ACT, and b) most students waited to receive their PSAT scores in December before beginning prep targeting an SAT date in May or June.
This year the landscape is radically different. Students are opting for the ACT in record numbers, and fewer students are waiting for PSAT scores to finalize testing decisions and scheduling. Many of the juniors we work with have begun their ACT prep or have firm plans for test date selection and tutor scheduling. Most are targeting the February or April ACT test date for a first sitting.
Compass students begin their work by completing an ACT diagnostic test. If you have not yet taken an ACT diagnostic test, now is the time to get on our schedule. Initial practice tests and evaluations by our Directors are a no-fee, no-obligation service. If you have friends who do not yet have a testing strategy in place, please feel free to send them our way for help. Successful tutoring programs can start as late as March or April for May or June test dates, but most students should get ahead of this process for an early spring test date and preserve the end of the school year for Subject Tests, APs, and final exams.
Why is the ACT now so popular? After all, students have two alternatives to the ACT: the old SAT through January and the new SAT beginning in March. Both options are flawed for most students, however, resulting in a flight to the ACT.
This flight to the familiar should be driven by thoughtful consideration of accurate information, not by rumors or misguided notions. The old SAT will be accepted by nearly all colleges (except Virginia Tech) and would be a fine option were it not for the unduly accelerated prep timeline that it demands. Two decades of experience shows us unequivocally that few students reach their peak performance on college admission tests by January of 11th grade. An additional 6-9 months of maturation and academic skill development invariably results in a higher score at the end of 11th grade or the fall of 12th grade. Superhuman efforts to overpower these forces of nature will typically result in inefficient use of precious time. You may know students preparing for the old SAT. Most of them will eventually need to switch to the ACT or new SAT. In most cases, the correct tactical decision would have been to spend no time on the old SAT in the first place.
The new SAT debuts in March and will be offered five more times through fall of senior year. But it’s also a compromised choice, for two primary reasons:
- Scores from the first test date will be delayed two months. Students would prefer to know where they stand on an important test without waiting 8-10 weeks. Waiting until late May will not give students time to make an informed decision on whether to retest in June. ACT scores are typically released within 2-3 weeks.
- Uncertainty is unavoidable regarding both the scoring/scaling of the new tests and the calibration of the curricula and prep resources available for them. Planning decisions and tutoring programs are best guided by close readings of initial and ongoing practice test scores. This is certainly the case for the ACT. But for the new SAT, the final scaling does not yet exist. We’ll get our first look at the score distribution and scale with the release of PSAT scores in December, but we won’t know what the scales are until we see the results of the March and May SAT. In other words, it is impossible to conclude from the new SAT “beta” practice tests that you are definitively better suited for it than for the ACT. Such a conclusion would rely on a series of interrelated assumptions we’d rather not see you make. With established ACT practice tests, you’ll know exactly where you stand. There is also the practical reality that even the most experienced test prep tutor cannot be as steeped in the nuances of the new SAT as in the ACT . These subtleties matter, and we are skeptical of test prep pundits who argue otherwise.
A few students will have specific and legitimate reasons why the new SAT is the best choice. Rationales might include a strong aversion to the ACT Science, or having special accommodations for learning differences approved by College Board but not by ACT, or even trends in practice test scores that offer enough support for the new SAT to outweigh the drawbacks. We welcome the opportunity to help you think through these issues.
The bottom line: The ACT is this year’s safe bet. And it’s time to get started.