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The New, New SAT vs. ACT: Who Wins with the Adaptive SAT

February 9, 2022

Last week the College Board announced its new format for the adaptive SAT. It launches at international sites in Spring 2023 and in Spring of 2024 in the US. The changes seem to have been made with an eye towards convenience and accessibility. A shorter test with quick results will be tempting for many students. However, viewed through a cognitive lens, the story is much more nuanced.

There is no test that favors all test takers equally, and an adaptive, computer-based test is no different. The adaptive SAT will be a boon to some students, but a potential minefield for others. MindPrint has long been able to project variable student performance on the SAT and ACT based on cognitive skills. Fortunately, research on adaptive tests (this from the College Board and ETS) and MindPrint experience with adaptive testing give some early indications of how things are likely to play out for different students on the new adaptive SAT.




Adaptive tests are shorter than their linear cousins. College Board suggests two hours for the new adaptive SAT compared to the traditional three. For students with weak attention and stamina, shorter is usually better. This is can be particularly true for students with weak attention who also are aiming for a top score. For them, it is often not the difficulty of the material, but “careless” errors that cost them. For students with weaker sustained attention, fewer questions mean fewer opportunities to make mistakes. Also, the harder adaptive content could hold their attention better than the loads of easier questions they must wade through on a paper test. On the other hand, an adaptive format means some questions will have a greater impact on scores so any mistakes can be costly. Impulsive students who are prone to working too quickly might do better on paper. They can more easily return to earlier questions and are able to miss a few questions and still hit their target. In short, the type of inattention and the type of student matters.


On the new adaptive SAT, the biggest factor between the SAT and the ACT will get even bigger. The SAT currently allows students 33%-43% more time per question than the ACT. College Board explained they are “shortening the overall length of the test while also allowing students more time per question.” Students with slower processing speed who might struggle to finish on the current tests will have much more time to show what they know on the adaptive SAT.

(Not a Perfect) Target Score

Students shooting for a near-perfect score are masters of the content. For everyone else, the current linear tests allow students some flexibility to pick and choose the questions they like. For example, students who love algebra but hate geometry can go do all of the algebra questions first and can afford to skip or miss a few geometry questions. Not the case for an adaptive test. Students will need to answer the early questions correctly in order to see a harder second section — and have the opportunity for a higher score. If the first section has lots of algebra, they’re psyched. If it has lots of geometry, they might be in for disappointment. Students with knowledge gaps from weaker memory or reasoning and/or who do much better on some subject areas might want to stick to the paper-based tests.

Online Format

While most students are accustomed to working online these days, taking a test on-screen brings some challenges independent of the adaptive format. There is a lot of back and forth between the screen and the scratch paper. Underlining, annotating, or working problems in the test booklet are not options when the material is on-screen. This format can disproportionally impact students with weaker spatial perception and working memory who are more likely to lose their place or miss a step. These students might prefer to stick with the paper-based tests.

Conclusions about the Adaptive SAT

Current freshmen and sophomores will need to choose: start early to take the old SAT, take the current ACT, or plan for the new adaptive SAT in their junior or senior years. There are many factors to consider beyond student preference. Knowledge of a student’s pacing, content mastery, and cognitive skills is critical. Tutors and advisors will need to weigh these factors for each individual student using the best available data. Tutors should be able to observe content mastery and anxiety. MindPrint can provide objective data on attention, spatial perception, working memory, and processing speed. Optimizing scores has always been about so much more than commas, reading comprehension, and algebra. It’s about knowing your student. MindPrint can help.

About MindPrint for Test Prep

The MindPrint solution includes a self-paced online cognitive assessment developed by neuroscientists at the University of Pennsylvania with a grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health. MindPrint measures ten cognitive skills related to academic and standardized test performance. MindPrint provides tutors insights into the unique learning needs of their students and allows them to customize their instruction to maximize both their efficiency and effectiveness leading to better student outcomes.


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