ACT Reading Speed Is Faster Than SAT To Obtain A High Score

December 31st, 2010

This in response by guest blogger Michele Kerr to the prior blog concerning the SAT reading assessment.. Kerr has been a public high school teacher and test prep instructor for college admissions tests.

I found the subject matter of your last two posts ironic, in that the complaint about “speed reading” for the SAT is juxtaposed with the ACT’s report on “college readiness”. As usual, the SAT is the object of critical scrutiny, much of it unfair, while the ACT is ignored, for both better and worse.

The SAT has three reading sections, 67 questions in 70 minutes. 19 of those questions are sentence completions, 48 are questions on 8 reading passages–4 short passages of 100 words, with one long one of 850 words. The total word count is about 2800. The sentence completions require 3 to 5 minutes (sections have 5, 6, or 8 SCs), allowing 15-20 minutes per section for answering 13-17 questions on 2-3 passages. That’s plenty of time for even the weakest reader to finish.

The ACT, while a much better test overall, has absurd time constraints on its reading and science sections. Testers have 35 minutes  to complete 4 750-word passages with 10 questions each–just 8.5 minutes per passage, 3000 total words.   The science section has seven passage of complex reading and figure interpretation to be completed in 35 minutes–just five minutes per passage.

When I coach low income, struggling students, I always used the ACT instead of the SAT because students could more easily decipher the questions. But I know that many of their scores would have been much higher had they a bit more time per section. I would often see students complete two or three reading sections with a fair degree of accuracy, but not have time to finish the test. The ACT would report them as “not ready for college” when in fact their reading speed is simply not equal to that of top students–while their reading comprehension is perfectly adequate.

The ACT  could be so much better if it allowed ten minutes more each on the reading and science sections (and ten minutes on the math wouldn’t hurt). It’s half an hour shorter than the SAT and has over 60 more questions, so there’s no reason they couldn’t tack on another twenty minutes. Contrary to received wisdom, the ACT is not an easier test, and giving additional time would not ease the considerable difficulty of its hardest questions. The math test asks trig questions, always has a complex number (i) question, and the occasional ellipse and matrix question, while the SAT barely tiptoes into second year algebra.  Unlike the SAT, however, ACT questions are relatively uncomplicated. The student reads the question and can move directly to figuring out the answer (which is often quite difficult). SAT questions in both reading and math are abstract and “front loaded” with difficulty–it takes cognitive skill just to figure out what the question is asking. Additional time isn’t going to help.

If SAT testers were given an additional 15 minutes per section, I predict that scores would not noticeably improve. If ACT testers were given an additional 15 minutes per section, my sense is that reading, science, and math scores in the bottom percentiles would see a good-sized bump.

If the purpose of the test is to sort out the fast thinkers, then fine. But the ACT purports to test college readiness, and its declarations about what college applicants are and aren’t prepared to do simply aren’t credible, in light of the severe time constraints. And it makes no sense at all to complain about the SAT’s time requirements, which simply aren’t onerous for even the weakest skilled students.