ACT vs. SAT Science

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This blog about ACT and SAT Science is correlated with a prior one dealing with ACT and SAT Math. I, myself, hate being bounced around between links so I thought it best to leave in the overlapping information as you might not be concerned with the math segment, nor read it. I focus here on the science segment.

Having tutored dozens of students in ACT Science and, this year, the so-called SAT Science, and evaluating student scores before and after the test, I think it may be helpful to a.) quantify the effectiveness of tutoring for these tests and b.) summarize the differences between the science portions of the tests.

There are four parts to the ACT exam, Math, Reading, English, and Science. There are three parts to the SAT exam, Math, Reading, and Writing and Language. (Where is the science, you say? Hmmm.) Both the ACT and SAT have optional Essay exams.

Who owns and creates these tests? The ACT test is owned by a nonprofit company of the same name founded in Iowa City, Iowa in 1959. The SAT test is owned by the College Board, a nonprofit company (not a college) whose first test started in 1926.

ACT Science: The ACT Science segment consists of 7 problem sets concerning which 40 questions are asked. The time allocated for the test is 35 minutes. The subjects are Earth/Space Science, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. While there are no specifics for any given year, we can assess the following general grouping of science passages:

  1. Research Summaries, 45%, 18 questions,
  2. Data Representation, 38% , 15 questions, and
  3. Conflicting Viewpoints, 17%, 7 questions.

Consider the first set, Research Summaries. Here the ACT attempts to assess the students’ ability to evaluate, analyze, and interpret the design, execution, and results of one or more experiments of a research nature. Often this requires the understanding of complex drawings that are given in the passage along with the research data, itself.

physicsThe second component, Data Representation, is all about charts, graphs, and tables. Can you understand them? Can you interpolate data? Can you extrapolate data? Can you correlate data between different tables and charts? In the third component, the passage will have two conflicting viewpoints about a scientific topic, say, the extinction of the dinosaurs. Here, the test assesses one’s ability to evaluate alternative theories, hypotheses, and viewpoints and distinguish and differentiate the salient features of each.
chartWhat should be emphasized is that no prior science knowledge is actually required on these tests. There are no questions that require domain knowledge of biology, physics, chemistry, or even environmental science. All the information needed to answer the questions is in the passages. The test is about reasoning and cognition, not about domain knowledge. There are no equations to memorize because there are none to solve.

The ACT Science scores are scaled from 1 to 36 using roughly a linear mapping. There is now no penalty for wrong answers so this has artificially elevated the scores from what they were several years ago.

SAT Science: Prior to the spring of 2016, the SAT did not have a science segment and, in my opinion, still does not. The heart of the matter is that SAT (AP College company) was losing market share to the ACT.  So, the SAT announced two years in advance that “a science segment is coming, a science segment is coming.” Well, the science segment has come and we are still looking for it.

redgirl-readingWhat SAT has done is take the traditional Reading and Writing and Language portions and inserted into them a science-sounding passage. Nothing has changed except the passage is ostensibly about science. I say ostensibly because the passage may simply tell the history of a scientific discovery, or the personalities involved in a scientific pursuit. As before, the Reading exam is 5 passages, 52 questions, for which are allotted 65 minutes. The Writing and Language exam is 4 passages, 44 questions, and allotted a time of 35 minutes. Somewhere in those two exams is a science-sounding passage or two.

The SAT scores are mapped from 200 to 800, said mapping seems to be less linear that the ACT. As with the ACT, there is no penalty for wrong answers.

Who takes these tests? For the most part the tests are taken during students’ junior year when the students are applying to colleges. ACT claims that 64% of the 2016 High School graduating class took their exam at least once. SAT numbers indicate that 47% of High School graduates took the SAT exam at least once. The percentages do not add to 100% because they are not related. Students can and do take either or both exams. Colleges specify which exam they utilize for evaluations, but students typically apply to several colleges. In addition, students can take either of the exams more than once and only the highest grade scored will be sent to the colleges (read grade inflation).

What about tutoring? My experience (and data from students taking the test) is that tutoring typically can add 8 – 10% to the Science score. Taking the test multiple times also helps so that by taking the test multiple times, getting tutoring, and practicing, the final Science score can be as much as 15% higher than the original score. These are my numbers based on students who attended college-preparatory High Schools.

Which is more difficult, SAT Science or ACT Science? While the ACT and College Board companies claim a similar level of difficulty, my students who have taken both tests are almost unanimous in ranking the ACT a real science test and the SAT a reading test.

If science were the only issue, then my prediction would be that science, engineering, and technical schools would flock to the ACT and separate themselves from the Liberal and Fine Arts schools who would naturally align with the SAT. However, if we throw in math, the SAT wins hands-down. (See blog). So, overall, it’s still a game and I think we should stay for the second half.

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