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ACT Subscores vs. SAT Subscores: How to Compare

Posted by Laura Staffaroni | Nov 18, 2016 6:00:00 PM

SAT versus ACT

 

feature_actsatsubscores.jpg

Both the ACT and SAT subscores provide students with detailed information about their weaknesses and strengths in categories more specific than English, Reading, Math, Science, and Writing (ACT) or Reading, Writing, Math, and Essay-writing (SAT). Understanding the implications of that detailed information, however, can be difficult, due to the sheer number of scores.

In this article, we'll discuss how subscores can be useful to students and whether or not subscores on one test can indicate how a student would do on the other.

feature image credit: 029.365 Elements of Perspective/used under CC BY-SA 2.0/cropped from original.

 

What Are SAT/ACT Subscores?

In addition to total scores out of 36 and 1600 and section scores out of 36 and 800 (or out of 40 for individual "test scores" on SAT Reading, Writing, and Math), the ACT and SAT both provide students with subscores. The stated goals of these subscores are to “provide more detail about student achievement” (SAT) and give students a "better understanding [of] strengths and areas for improvement in each subject"(ACT).

The subscores calculated on each test fall under one of two different categories:

  1. Section-level subscores: These “reporting categories” subscores give information about the different types of question within a specific section (e.g. types of Math questions).

  2. Cross-test scores: These subscores give information about how student is doing on a specific topic, computed by combining information from multiple sections (e.g. Math and Science on the ACT to get the STEM subscore).

 

 

SAT vs. ACT Subscores: Can You Compare Them? And Why Would You?

The short answer: yes, some subscores can be compared.

The closest relationships are between the SAT and ACT essay subscores, followed by the SAT Writing and ACT English subscores. In practical terms, this means, for example, that students who score highly on all the ACT essay subscores can expect to do fairly well on the SAT essay subscores, while students who don't do well on ACT English subscores can anticipate similarly poor results on SAT Writing subscores.

By contrast, it's unlikely that students would see any relationship between their subscores on SAT Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and ACT Reading, because the subscores measure such different things. If you get high ACT Reading subscores, that's great, but it doesn't tell you anything about how you'd do on Evidence-Based Reading and Writing subscores. This is even more true for ACT Science, since the only science-related subscore on the SAT measures something completely different from what the ACT Science subscores are trying to capture.

Subscores for SAT/ACT Math fall into the middle between the highly comparable SAT/ACT essay and Writing/English subscores and the divergent SAT/ACT Reading subscores. There is some overlap between what the Math subscores measure across the two tests, but the correspondence is a little fuzzier. A high subscore on ACT's Algebra subscore could mean you'd get a high score on SAT's Heart of Algebra subscore, but you could just as easily get a medium score because there's a considerable difference in what the Algebra questions on each test are meant to measure.

But why would you want to compare subscores across the SAT and ACT?

The biggest reason is that doing so can give you more information about whether or not it's worth taking both the SAT and the ACT. For instance, if you take the ACT and score poorly on certain subscores in ACT English, you can expect to not do any better on the SAT Writing versions of those subscores (and thus on SAT Writing). Conversely, even if you did poorly on some of the ACT Math subscores, there's a much better chance that you could do better on the related SAT Math subscores and get a relatively higher overall SAT Math score.

 

body_comparingsubscores.jpgThe head on the right is ACT Math subscores, the head on the left is SAT subscores, and you're the goateed man in the middle, wondering if you should take the SAT as well. It's...it's not a perfect representation.

 

So what are the different subscores, and which ones are comparable? We’ll start off by comparing different reporting categories for the SAT and ACT, section by section.

 

Section-Level Subscores on the SAT and ACT

Reporting categories function similarly on the SAT and ACT in that they both attempt to break down entire sections like English or Math into more specific skills that students can then focus on. There is a slight difference in how questions are sorted into different subscores, however: on the ACT, a question is always grouped into at least one subscore category, while on the SAT there are some questions on the Math and Reading sections that don't fall into any specific reporting category.

One other difference between the way section-level subscores are used on the SAT and ACT is that on the SAT, subscores are scaled to a range of 1-15, while on the ACT, subscores are measured on a scale of 0-100%. As you'll see in the more detailed analyses below, the number of questions that go into each subscore varies a little bit more on the ACT than on the SAT, so a percentage reporting system makes more sense for the ACT.

Important caveat: our descriptions of correspondence between the different subscores on the SAT and ACT are based purely on content (what the subscores say they're measuring), rather than empirical data on correlations between different subscores (since that data is not currently available). We'll update this article if and when that data is released.

 

body_sectionlevelscores.jpgDivision Street Between the Bridges/used under CC BY 2.0/Resized from original.

 

Reporting Categories: Math (SAT and ACT)

Out of the 58 questions that appear on the Math section of the SAT, there are three no-calculator and three calculator questions that don't apply towards any subscore, leaving 52 questions to fall into one of three non-overlapping categories: Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, and Passport to Advanced Math.

Name

# of questions

Score Range

Heart of Algebra

19 (8 no calculator, 11 with calculator)

1-15

Problem Solving and Data Analysis

17 (all with calculator)

1-15

Passport to Advanced Math

16 (9 no calculator, 8 with calculator)

1-15

 

In contrast to the relatively straightforward division of questions on SAT Math, ACT Math reports eight different subscores to students. Two of these subscore (Preparing for Higher Math and Integrating Essential Skills) cover all 60 ACT Math questions; of the remaining categories, five are further divisions of Preparing for Higher Math, while one (Modeling) measures questions from both the Preparing for Higher Math and Integrating Essential Skills subscore categories.

Name

# of questions

Score Range

Preparing for Higher Math

35

0-100%

Number & Quantity

~5*

0-100%

Algebra

~8

0-100%

Functions

~8

0-100%

Geometry

~8

0-100%

Statistics & Probability

~6

0-100%

Integrating Essential Skills

25

0-100%

Modeling

~22

0-100%

 *Number of questions with a "~" next to it indicates variation from test to test.

 

SAT Math vs ACT Math Subscores

Based on the SAT and ACT's descriptions of what each subscore covers, there is a lot of overlap between subscores on the two tests. The biggest links are as follows:

  • SAT Heart of Algebra and ACT Algebra
  • SAT Problem Solving and Data Analysis and ACT Statistics & Probability and/or ACT Integrating Essential Skills and/or ACT Modeling
  • SAT Passport to Advanced Mathematics and ACT Functions

The overlap between the subscores is not complete (for instance, Heart of Algebra on the SAT does not cover exactly the same things as Algebra on the ACT), but there still should be some correspondence between the above subscores on the SAT and ACT. We have a much more detailed look at the ways SAT and ACT Math compare to one another in this article.

 

body_satvsactmath.jpgfor my math girl/used under CC BY-SA 2.0/Cropped from original.

 

Reporting Categories: Writing and Language (SAT) and English (ACT)

On SAT Writing and Language, all 44 questions fall into one of two section-level subscores: Expression of Ideas or Standard English Conventions.

Name

# of questions

Score Range

Expression of Ideas

24

1-15

Standard English Conventions

20

1-15

 

Similarly, ACT English divides up its 75 questions into three different subscores: Production of Writing, Knowledge of Language, and Conventions of Standard English. 

Name

# of questions

Score Range

Production of Writing

23-24

0-100%

Knowledge of Language

10-11

0-100%

Conventions of Standard English

40

0-100%

 

 

SAT Writing vs ACT English Subscores

Based on the descriptions of the two tests' subscores, students can expect their SAT Standard English Conventions subscore to be similar, percentage-wise, to their ACT Conventions of Standard English subscore. For instance, a student who gets 14/15 (93.3%) on Standard English Conventions should expect to get a similar score on Conventions of Standard English. SAT's "Expression of Ideas" subscore appears to cover items that both Production of Writing and Knowledge of Language subscores cover on the ACT, so it's possible that those scores would also be correlated; however, because you'd be going from one subscore to two subscores (or two to one), the equivalency is likely to be less clear.

For more about the connection between SAT Writing and ACT English, read our comparison of the two sections.

 

body_satwritingvsactenglish.jpgKnowing your Onions/used under CC BY 2.0/Resized from original.

 

 

Reporting Categories: Reading (SAT and ACT)

SAT Reading is unusual among SAT sections in that there are no subscores that only reflect performance on the SAT Reading section. Instead, the SAT has two reporting categories that combine questions from Writing and Language and from Reading: Words in Context and Command of Evidence. The breakdown of how many questions from each section are included in each subscore is shown in the table below.

Name

# of Questions

Score Range

Words in Context

18 (10 Reading, 8 Writing)

1-15

Command of Evidence

18 (10 Reading, 8 Writing)

1-15

 

The ACT is much more straightforward with its Reading subscores. The Understanding Complex Texts subscore measures how well students understand the central meaning of college-level texts (although which subset of items this subscore refers to is not told to the student); in addition, all 40 Reading questions are further divided into one of three subscore categories (Key Ideas and Details, Craft and Structure, and Integration of Knowledge and Ideas).

Name

# of questions

Score Range

Key Ideas and Details

23-24

0-100%

Craft and Structure

11-14

0-100%

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

3-5

0-100%

Understanding Complex Texts

40

Below, Proficient, or Above

 

 

SAT Reading vs ACT Reading Subscores

Because the SAT "Reading" subscores draw on items from both SAT Reading and Writing and Language, while the ACT Reading subscores only apply to ACT Reading items, it's harder to compare the categories. Based on the descriptions of the subscores, the SAT Words in Context subscore likely will show some kind of correlation with ACT Craft and Structure subscore, while the SAT Command of Evidence and ACT Integration of Knowledge and Ideas subscores are also likely linked; however, the relationship is much weaker than with ACT English/SAT Writing and Language items.

Learn more about the differences between SAT and ACT Reading here!

 

body_satvsactreading.jpgTwo stacks of books next to each other/used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.

 

Reporting Categories: Science (ACT Only)

The ACT Science Test provides three subscores: Interpretation of Data, Scientific Investigation, and Evaluation of Models, Inferences, and Experimental Results.

Name

# of questions

Score Range

Interpretation of Data

16

0-100%

Scientific Investigation

10-11

0-100%

Evaluation of Models, Inferences, and Experimental Results

13-14

0-100%

 

 

ACT Science vs SAT Subscores

Since the SAT has no science section, there is no direct comparison possible from section-to-section. While the descriptions of the skills measured with ACT Science subscores may have some relationship to the items captured by SAT Reading and Math, the tasks that the ACT asks students to complete are specific enough to ACT Science that it's unlikely there'd be a strong correlation between subscores on ACT Science and those on SAT Reading or SAT Math.

 

body_actsciencesubscores.jpgScience, it works./used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.

 

Reporting Categories: Writing (ACT) and Essay (SAT)

With the changes to the SAT in March 2016, there is no longer one total SAT Essay score reported. Instead, students who opt to take the essay will receive three different subscores: Reading, Analysis, and Writing.

Name

Score Range

Reading

2-8 (two graders scoring on a scale of 1-4)

Analysis

2-8 (two graders scoring on a scale of 1-4)

Writing

2-8 (two graders scoring on a scale of 1-4)

 

The ACT still provides students who opt to take ACT Plus Writing with an overall Writing score on a scale of 2-12, but since September 2015 has also reported four different subscores to students: Ideas & Analysis, Development & Support, Organization, and Writing. As of September 2016, the total ACT Writing score is just an average of the four domain scores each student receives on the essay, so it's debatable whether or not the domain scores count as "subscores," but I've included them below for completeness's sake (and to make it easier to compare with the SAT essay).

Name

Score Range

Ideas & Analysis

2-12 (two graders scoring on a scale of 1-6)

Development & Support

2-12 (two graders scoring on a scale of 1-6)

Organization

2-12 (two graders scoring on a scale of 1-6)

Language Use

2-12 (two graders scoring on a scale of 1-6)

 

 

SAT Essay vs ACT Essay Subscores

As with ACT English vs SAT Writing, a very strong case can be made for the correlation between subscores on the SAT and ACT essays. While the SAT Essay Reading score is its own beast, there's a fairly straightforward relationship between the remaining two SAT essay subscores and the four ACT essay subscores:

  • SAT Essay Analysis = ACT Essay Ideas & Analysis and ACT Essay Development & Support
  • SAT Essay Writing = ACT Essay Organization and ACT Essay Language Use

The numerical relationships aren't exact between the essay subscores (you can't just multiple your ACT Essay Organization and Language Use summed scores by 2/3 to get your equivalent SAT Essay Writing score), but the theoretical relationships between SAT/ACT essay subscores are strong. If you do well on the Analysis and Writing portion of the SAT essay, chances are you will also do very well on the ACT essay; if you get extremely high ACT Organization and Language Use scores, you'll likely do well on at least the Writing area of the SAT essay.

For further reading, check out our articles analyzing the rubrics that determine your SAT and ACT essay scores.

 

body_writinganessay.jpghome work routine/used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.

 

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Cross-Test Scores on the SAT and ACT

Cross-test scores are meant to analyze performance on a broader level than the section subscores can. Theoretically, these cross-test scores are capturing information about broader skills like “analysis in science” and “English/Language Arts” that students have to draw on for multiple sections.

As of March 2016, the SAT now provides students with two scores that incorporate items from all sections of the test: Analysis in History/Social Sciences and Analysis in Science.

Name

Sections Included

Topics Covered

# of questions

Score Range

Analysis in History/Social Sciences

Reading, Writing, Math

analytical thinking about texts and questions in history/social sciences

35 (21 Reading, 6 Writing, 8 Math)

10-40

Analysis in Science

Reading, Writing, Math

analytical thinking about texts and questions in science

35 (21 Reading, 6 Writing, 8 Math)

10-40

 

The ACT's cross-test scores are a little more limited in scope; the English Language Arts score averages together students' English, Reading, and Writing test scores, while the STEM score averages together students' Math and Science test scores.

Name

Sections Included

Topics Covered

# of questions

Score Range

ELA (English Language Arts)*

English, Reading, Writing

overall performance on English, Reading, and Writing Tests

116 (75 English, 40 Reading, 1 Writing)

1-36**

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math)

Math, Science

overall performance on Math and Science Tests

100 (60 Math, 40 Science)

1-36

*Only calculated for students who do the optional essay (ACT Writing)

**Calculated using the Writing Test scale score (1-36) rather than the normal ACT Writing score (2-12), although this scaled Writing score is no longer reported to students on score reports (Source: Email communication with ACT Customer Care).

Unlike section-level subscores, the cross-test scores on the SAT and ACT are not really comparable, due to methodological differences (SAT cross-test scores use some items from Reading, Writing, and Math, while ACT cross-test scores use all items from selected sections). So if you get a high ACT STEM score, that's no guarantee you'd get an equally good "Analysis in Science" score on the SAT.

 

body_crosstestcores.jpgApples & Oranges - They Don't Compare/used under CC BY 2.0.

 

A Quick Note on College and Career Readiness Scores

These scores are only part of ACT score reports, so they’re not comparable across SAT and ACT, but I wanted to briefly mention them because the college benchmarks, at least, do show up on every student's score report (the career readiness information only shows up if students have previously completed ACT's Interest Inventory).

With college readiness benchmark and estimates of how well high school students are likely to do in introductory college courses like Freshman English or College Algebra, ACT, Inc. is trying to provide more guidance for high school students. This is admirable, but it's unclear whether or not the benchmarks twist the test into supporting interpretations that were never meant to be made and that the data do not support. Because the methodology used to calculate benchmarks and college readiness is not public (for instance, students can't see which Reading questions go into their "Arguments" benchmark score, or what constitutes a college "History" class for the purpose of benchmarks), it cannot be independently assessed for veracity and validity. Similarly, there has been no public research released thus far that shows supplying students with these benchmarks has any benefit.

In my personal opinion, these college and career readiness scores, absent empirical proof, are more likely to have a neutral or harmful effect than to provide any benefit. This is particularly true for scores that tell students they aren't REALLY interested in what they think they're interested in (as the Interest Inventory might), or inform students have no chance at succeeding in a field they are interested in (for instance, if they have <25% chance in getting above a C in Engineering but want to be an engineer).

My advice: Skip looking at the College and Career Readiness subscores and benchmarks. Until there's evidence that shows the ACT benchmarks are a more reliable predictor of college success than high school GPA, there's no point fretting over them.

 

body_noneedtoworry.jpg Widgeroo/used under CC BY-SA 2.0/Cropped from original.

No need to worry about the College and Career Readiness benchmarks.

 

 

Do Subscores Succeed?

In a very limited sense, subscores do succeed in their goal of providing more information about student achievement. In particular, subscores help students who can’t afford or don’t want to order Test Information Release (ACT) or Question and Answer Service/Student Answer Service (SAT).

Large discrepancies between subscores within a section are a sign that students have specific areas they can improve on and see a large impact in their scores; for example, if you get 16% on statistics and probability and 100% on all other math subscores, then you can know with precision what's keeping your Math score down and what you have to work on to increase it. For the most part, though, there’s going to be some correlation among performance on subscores within a section (that’s why they’re in the same section – they’re testing related skills), and blips on the subscore percentages won’t tell you as much as looking at the individual questions you got wrong and determining why you got them wrong.

Cross-test subscores are more independent and so do provide unique information, but that information isn’t really useful to students in terms of test preparation. For instance, if a student gets 38/40 in “Analysis in History/Social Science” and 40/40 in “Analysis in Science” on the SAT, that might show where the student’s strengths lie, but it’s not an area that students can specifically target to improve on; any improvement on cross-test subscores has to come at a lower level, through students increasing their question-level or section-level knowledge.

College and career readiness subscores like the ones the ACT provides could potentially be helpful to students who have no idea what they want to study in college, but in all honesty there are better places to get guidance for that than your performance on a 4-hour standardized college entrance exam.

 

Emptiness/used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.

 

Bonus: Want to improve your SAT/ACT section scores? Check out our top guides for every single section of the SAT and ACT.


SAT 800 Score Guides: SAT Reading | SAT Writing | SAT Math | SAT Essay


ACT 36 Score Guides: ACT English | ACT Math | ACT Reading | ACT Science | ACT Essay


These are the very best guides available on boosting your SAT/ACT scores, section by section. They're written by Harvard grads and perfect SAT/ACT scorers. Don't disappoint yourself - read these guides and improve your score today.


What’s Next?

Pit the SAT and ACT against each other with our full breakdown of the differences and similarities between the SAT and ACT; if you prefer a side by side comparison, then you'll prefer our SAT vs ACT comparison charts.

Scoring equally well on both tests and thinking about doubling down? Learn the best (and only) reasons to take both the SAT and ACT here.

Not sure which test to take? Read our guide on whether you should take the ACT or new 2016 SAT.

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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Laura Staffaroni
About the Author

Laura graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in Music and Psychology, and earned a Master's degree in Composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and GRE and loves advising students on how to excel in high school.



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