ACT vs. SAT Smackdown

on May 24, 2016

ACT and the College Board have started an unusually public fight about how scores on the new SAT compare with scores on the ACT.

The College Board published a concordance that maps from the new SAT scores to old SAT scores. Students have been getting higher scores on the new SAT than on the old SAT, as illustrated by this chart of the differences in scores (low end of each range). The new SAT scores are averaging about 70 points higher than the old SAT scores.

But the ACT complained because the College Board also included a mapping from the new SAT to the ACT. ACT criticized this concordance because it was produced without ACT’s involvement or the involvement of independent groups, as occurred in the development of the 2006 concordances. ACT also argued that a full year of test-taker data is needed to produce an accurate concordance, not just spring test results. Finally, ACT said that the College Board did not directly compare new SAT scores to ACT scores, but instead used “chained concordances” that mapped from the new SAT to the old SAT and from the old SAT to the ACT.

This chart shows the bottom of the ranges for old and new SAT scores versus the ACT, based on the College Board’s concordances.

The College Board says that it uses the equipercentile concordance method (how’s that for an SAT word!), which aligns percentile distributions of test scores, so that a student ranking at a particular percentile on the old test would rank at the same percentile on the new test. But, this method isn’t necessarily accurate if the student’s test-taking abilities improve from one test to the next or if the new test measures a different set of skills, as opposed to just being an easier test.

The College Board also doesn’t use the equipercentile concordance method for aligning SAT scores between different test administrations. Instead, a subset of questions are the same on successive SAT test administrations, to allow a direct comparison of performance between the two tests.

The College Board’s concordance between the ACT and the new and old SAT is illustrated by this table.

ACT Composite Score Old SAT Composite Score (Math and Critical Reading) New SAT Composite Score
36 1600 1600
35 1540-1590 1560-1590
34 1490-1530 1520-1550
33 1400-1480 1490-1510
32 1400-1430 1450-1480
31 1360-1390 1420-1440


1330-1350 1390-1410
29 1290-1320 1350-1380
28 1250-1280 1310-1340
27 1210-1240 1280-1300
26 1170-1200 1240-1270
25 1130-1160 1200-1230
24 1090-1120 1160-1190
23 1050-1080 1130-1150
22 1020-1040 1100-1120
21 980-1010 1060-1090
20 940-970 1020-1050
19 900-930 980-1010
18 860-890 940-970
17 820-850 900-930
16 770-810 860-890
15 720-760 810-850
14 670-710 760-800
13 620-660 720-750
12 560-610 630-710
11 510-550 560-620

Source: Table 1 of old SAT and new SAT.

This fight is really about market share. The ACT overtook the SAT in 2012 for the first time, becoming the more popular test. In 2014, 1.8 million students took the ACT, compared to 1.5 million taking the SAT. The SAT revamp moved the new SAT closer to the ACT than the old SAT.

The discordance matters for test-takers because which test they take can affect their chances of admission. Some colleges require a SAT score that is higher than the equivalent ACT score, and some require a lower SAT score.

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