SAT Tutoring and the Digital SAT
The College Board announced in 2021 that the SAT is becoming a Computer Adaptive Test (CAT), allowing the same reading and math skills to be tested with fewer questions.
The digital SAT will be a section adaptive CAT: the difficulty of questions presented to students on subsequent sections depends upon their performance on previous sections. Students will first see a math section with a combination of easy, medium and hard problems. Their performance on this first section will determine the composition of questions in the second section. The same will be true on the verbal sections, which will combine both reading and writing (grammar) questions. It’s expected that the new SAT will be approximately half as long as the paper-and-pencil format.
The SAT presents verbal and math challenges that are often significantly different from those that students face in school. Our tutors work with students to close gaps in their underlying content knowledge, and help them understand how to set priorities, refine their problem-solving process, and apply what they know to reason through novel questions.
The ACT is more accurately described as an assessment test, while the SAT is more typically considered a reasoning test. Students typically find the content and tone of the ACT to be more like those on a test in school. The ACT, however, applies significantly more time pressure than does the SAT, since students need to answer more questions in less time. In addition, the content on the ACT is broader: it draws from a wider – and more advanced – range of math concepts and also includes a science section.
Frequently Asked Questions
Most families choose PrepMatters for two reasons: our expertise and our professionalism. Both are rooted in the fact that our tutors simply tutor more than many others do. Some of our tutors are successful professionals with active day jobs, but almost half tutor as their sole profession. And none are college kids looking for a quick part-time job. Our SAT and ACT tutors tutor a minimum of 10 hours per week and some routinely see 30 or more per week. And as we like to preach around here, there’s almost nothing that doesn’t improve with practice. And our founder, Ned Johnson, has had lots of practice with over 40,000 hours of 1-on-1 tutoring logged over his career! And in that 20 years, we’ve also built the infrastructure that contributes to our student’s success. From our annually updated workbooks and materials, to weekly proctored practice tests, to regular calls from our Quality Assurance Director, there’s a complete team in place to help your child succeed.
All of our tutors undergo the same training and are implementing the same PrepMatters developed and refined methods – we’re all coaching from the same playbook. Our senior tutors, however, have literally thousands of hours of one-on-one experience that they can bring to bear in a session to be able to intuit the nature of their student’s roadblock and possible strategies to overcome it. While there’s no substitute for experience, PrepMatters’ having physical offices fortunately facilitates collegiality and cooperation among our entire staff so that newer tutors can get better faster. In fact, all new tutors are required to attend at least one roundtable a week with a senior tutor during which they can discuss their students’ needs to improve their own tutoring and their students’ results.
Tutors typically have three goals during a first session: to learn about the student, to debunk myths about these ridiculous tests, and to deliver some pedagogical content.
Establishing rapport is the first goal. Tutors will likely ask your student some of the same questions you answered in your placement call, not because they didn’t read your answers but because hearing how teenagers frame their answers and think about themselves as students and testers is invaluable in knowing what approach to take. That initial conversation may take 2 minutes or it may take 20. Tutors will of course take into account impending test dates: a student testing in 3 weeks needs strategies sooner than one testing in 12 weeks. The longer the planned engagement, the more important – and ultimately more efficient – is the use of the initial chat in the first session.
Students often come with many preconceived notions about these tests: what they measure, what they mean and how they feel about them. It’s important to understand the context any student brings and make sure they know these aren’t intelligence tests and are simply tests of acquired skills – skills that can be acquired, like any others, through practice.
My student took a diagnostic ACT and SAT and scored higher on the ACT, so should he focus on this test?
Choosing the right test can be important but shouldn’t be stressful. About half of our students do equally well on the tests. In other cases, students’ skills or tastes will align more with one test or the other. If there’s a large discrepancy in scores, the path is clear. For scores that are within the error bars of each other, the tutor and student will work together to decide the best path. The tutor will bring his professional opinion as to which scores can more easily be improved and the student her preference for one test over another (really not so much liking one but disliking the other!) All things being equal, we tend to go with students preferences. After all, tutoring is a process best done with students rather than to them. Their taking ownership of the process and making the decision themselves can go a long way to increasing the work they put in and the results they achieve.
We neither calculate nor publish an “average score increase”. Every PrepMatters student is different. Some of our students start preparing two weeks before the test while others try to start two years before the test (we do our best to dissuade the latter!) Some begin at the 9th percentile and others at the 90th. Any average we would calculate or share wouldn’t be helpful in understanding what you should expect for your child.
Goal setting, however, is a critical part of what we do, so talk with your tutor about what reasonable goals and expectations are for your particular situation. Your tutor can tell you what sorts of score increases are consistent with students like yours. As for a guarantee, we don’t guarantee a score increase, but we also don’t lock you into a package deal. What we can guarantee, however, is that your tutor will do everything she can to help your child be more successful, whether it’s in the classroom or on a test. We can also guarantee you’ll receive regular feedback in the form of notes from tutors and practice test results so that you stay informed of the progress that is being made.
The average PrepMatters student typically has between 12 and 14 weekly sessions. But, in truth, the length of road traveled depends upon where you start and where you’re going. In much the same way, it’s difficult to predict how many sessions any student will need without more details. You should begin by taking advantage of our diagnostic testing. With those scores in hand and some goals in mind, your tutor will have more specific advice and recommendations for a tutoring schedule and testing plan that’s right for you.
One of the reasons we only do one-on-one tutoring is so that we can tailor a learning plan to your child’s needs, rather than subjecting them to needless exercises during which they’re not really learning anything. It’s always safe, however, to get started a little early. If you’re seeing practice test scores that are reaching your goals, you may want to test earlier than planned. Or scale back tutoring to shorter or less frequent sessions. Our tutors are typically overbooked during the weeks leading up to the test and will appreciate the break. Conversely, it can be difficult for them to accommodate additional sessions during those weeks no matter how much they might want to help.
The most salient difference between the SAT and ACT has always been the pace of the tests, and that difference is even more stark on the new test. Take the reading section, for example: SAT test takers have 65 minutes to negotiate approximately 400 lines of text and 52 questions, while ACT students have only 35 minutes for 350 lines and 40 questions. That breaks down to around 52 seconds per question for the ACT and 75 for the SAT. That’s a whopping 20 extra seconds per question or, put another way, 40% extra time for the SAT! And the ACT Science section is just as paced, if not more so.
Students who read quickly are much more at home on the ACT, while those who don’t may never be able to successfully cope with the pace of the ACT, no matter how much they prepare. While the ACT Reading section is faster, the SAT Reading section tends to be deeper. The ACT readings are generally more concrete and the questions are more literally answered in the passage, many times even using the same words as in the correct answer. In contrast and by design, passages of different textual complexities comprise the SAT reading section: most students will find some passages easier and others certainly more difficult. These more difficult passages tend to be more abstract, employ higher levels of diction, and require students to read quickly but more deeply.
On the ACT, a typical student refrain when approaching a difficult question is “Oh, right… I kind of remember that in the passage but I can’t find it.” Complaints on the SAT reading usually sound more like “Ugh… a question about that paragraph? I didn’t really get what they were saying there.”
Besides the pace of the tests, the second historical difference between the tests has always been trickiness or lack thereof. The SAT styled itself a reasoning test, the ACT an assessment test. Although those labels are no longer formally used, they remain quite useful in understanding the differences between the tests – especially the math sections. Now that the SAT encompasses more than Algebra 1 and Geometry, it can feature questions that are difficult because of their advanced content rather than simply because they’re tricky. That being said, old habits die hard. Test writers still delight in presenting students with questions that are worded differently from what they’ve seen in school or those that have a long way and a short way to answer them.
The SAT still favors students who are looking for the angle and want to work smarter and not harder. The math section on the ACT, however, rarely rewards students for seeing a shortcut method, instead rewarding them for having spent the last several years paying attention in math class and knowing how to answer the most commonly asked questions.
The questions students face on the ACT math section look more like those seen in school, and students who do well in their math classes typically find themselves well prepared for this section. The ACT features lots of geometry, plenty of algebra 1 and 2 and some harder precalculus level questions at the end of the section. While the redesigned SAT now does include questions on more advanced topics, those are few in comparison to its primary focus: linear equations, systems & inequalities and data analysis & modeling. The ACT math section is thus a more complete assessment of most students’ high school math curricula.
The English section of the new SAT has received the greatest overhaul in its recent revision and now is a nearly identical to the ACT English section. That means that it’s less useful for students deciding which test to take. For what it’s worth, the English section is one of the most consistent sections on either test and thus typically the easiest for students to improve with practice. So no matter which test students choose, the English section will likely be just fine!
Those who love (or hate) science class in school may be leaning towards (or away from) the ACT based on the presence of its Science section, but that would be a mistake. The ACT Science section actually doesn’t test students on science. Just like the Reading section doesn’t ask questions about The Great Gatsby or The Grapes of Wrath, the Science section doesn’t test a student’s knowledge of biology, chemistry or physics.
The ACT is a standardized test and as such can’t depend too much on students’ high school curricula. Were the test writers being more honest, they might have titled this section the Reading Charts & Graphs section, because that’s exactly what students need to do. The real challenge of the ACT science section is twofold: working at the fast pace required and dealing with the fact that the questions can be answered from the given information without really understanding the experiment or what the data mean.
As the content of the tests grows more similar, test administrations and policies play an increasingly important role in determining which test is a better match. The better test may be the one that aligns most helpfully with a student’s personal calendar, affording him or her the opportunity to thoroughly prepare yet also be well rested (and hopefully not too stressed out). While the SAT and ACT are offered 7 and 6 times per year respectively, they are often offered during different months.
Students should look at their junior year calendars with a view to what works best for them. Do they have time in the summer before junior year to begin preparing? Is wrestling season totally out? Is the SAT offered the week of the big school play? Students who are taking AP exams in the spring should also think about how those dates may limit their availability for an SAT or ACT.
Another important policy is the way in which the different tests handle score cancellation and deletion. While the SAT allows students to cancel scores before the test results are known (by the Wednesday following the test to be exact), the ACT allows students to delete scores, but only after the test has been scored and, thus, there are scores to delete.
In practice, this important factor strongly favors the ACT since students can complete all of their testing and decide which scores to retain or delete depending upon how they scored. Knowing scores can always be deleted is often crucial in reducing test anxiety so that students can perform their best on test day.
In the final analysis, there’s one sure-fire way to know which test is better: take practice tests. Students may not embrace the proposition of giving up a weekend day each to a practice SAT and ACT, but that investment of time is beggared by the potential time-savings that results from finding the right test.
Additionally, students are the ones who are doing all the heavy lifting here – attending sessions, doing homework and taking practice tests – so their feedback is essential to the process. In many cases, scores on the tests may be equivalent but students preferences may not be. Armed with the experience of having taken the tests, the students themselves are often in the best position to decide which test is better – or sometimes which is the lesser of two evils!
My student was invited to help pilot the new digital SAT this spring. What’s going on and should they do it?
College Board is reaching out via email to a random selection of students registered for a spring test this year. Selected students will have the opportunity to take a pilot version for the CAT SAT for free at a specified time in the next few months. Selected students MUST also take the paper and pencil version of the SAT they’ve registered for. Their scores from the CAT SAT will be returned to them in September and, at that point, students will have the choice to decide whether or not those scores become official. It’s a great opportunity for students to get another free chance at the SAT in a new format which may be more beneficial to them, without the risk of needing to report a lower score. We recommend all students take advantage of their luck in being chosen.