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SAT/ACT Hybrid Tests: Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid

 In ACT, Redesigned SAT, SAT

A few weeks ago, I received a rather panicky call from a mom – I’ll call her “Nancy” – who wanted to speak with me about test prep for her 17 year-old daughter.  She was confused about the differences between the ACT and new SAT, and wanted some guidance on which test her daughter should take.  She also mentioned that, in an effort to save time and get some clarity on whether the SAT or ACT would be a better fit, her daughter took an SAT/ACT “hybrid” test from another test prep company.  Now, however, with results in hand, Nancy was more confused than before about which test would be better for her daughter.  She said she felt that they were running out of time and didn’t know what to do.

After hearing all of this, I calmly told Nancy what I tell all nervous parents – that, at the end of the day, this is “just a test.”  I then suggested she forget about those hybrid test scores and have her daughter come in to our office to take a real, full-length SAT and ACT.

The SAT and ACT: Different Flavors of Kool-Aid

Whenever I think about the differences between SAT/ACT hybrid tests and the real SAT and ACT, I think about Kool-Aid (bear with me on this).  Let’s say you have two flavors of Kool-Aid – strawberry and grape – and you want to determine which flavor a person prefers.  Well, that would be easy: first you’d have them drink the strawberry, and then you’d have them drink the grape, and then you’d ask them which one they liked the best.

And that’s what we do here at Summit to help students determine which test is best for them: we have them take full-length versions of both tests, and then look at both quantitative (score differences between both tests) and qualitative (which test the student likes more) information.  By comparing this qualitative and quantitative information, we are able to see which test is the better fit.

Hybrid tests try to save time by simply combining both tests into one: they’ll add some SAT- and ACT-style questions together with the assumption that a student who performs better on one type of question (SAT or ACT) is likely to perform better on that same test.  The problem with this approach is that it cannot give us any information about certain aspects of the test-taking experience that are crucial to consider when comparing the SAT and ACT: a student’s time management skills, say, or their test-taking stamina.  The hybrid test approach is a lot like asking someone to drink a mixture of strawberry and grape Kool-Aid to determine which flavor they like best.  It cannot be done!

Real Practice Tests Are Better Than Hybrid Tests

At first, Nancy was a bit resistant to the idea of completely throwing out those SAT/ACT hybrid test results.  After all, the whole purpose of having her daughter take the hybrid in the first place was to save time.  Her daughter, like most of today’s high school juniors, was exceptionally busy, and Nancy was worried that they wouldn’t be able to find the time to come in to sit for not one, but two practice tests.

Saving time is one of the most appealing aspects of hybrid tests, and I get that: parents often want to know why they should have their busy teenagers take two tests instead of one. “Why,” they’ll ask, “can’t there just be one simple test that will tell us whether the SAT or ACT is right for my kid?”  Therein lies the reason why hybrid tests are not likely to go away any time soon: the market wants them, and some cynical test prep companies are more than happy to provide them.

The problem is, since they are basically two flavors of Kool-Aid mixed together, hybrid tests actually waste more time by adding an unnecessary step to the process.  There are four key reasons why full-length practice tests are best for students to take:

  • Practice tests help students understand their strengths and areas in need of improvement.
  • They allow students to experience what it is really like to take the test under timed conditions (the “dress rehearsal”).
  • They provide benchmark scores, which give the ability to compare real SAT and ACT scores to determine whether a student’s scoring profile favors one test over the other.
  • They provide great qualitative information about how students feel about each test. Many students will prefer one test over another; quite often, students should end up taking that test.

Only real practice tests released by the test makers (which are the only practice tests we use and recommend at Summit) achieve all of these objectives.  Hybrid tests, by contrast, mostly fail on all four fronts.


After explaining all of this to Nancy, she agreed to have her daughter come in on successive weekends to take a practice SAT and ACT.  A couple days after all of these scores had come in, I called Nancy to go over them in detail.  During that call I pointed out her daughter’s strengths and areas in need of improvement on both tests, and offered my thoughts on why I thought she had struggled in certain areas and how test prep could help.

I knew that Nancy had been feeling like time was running out, and so it was extremely gratifying to me when, at the conclusion of the call, she thanked me for walking her through everything and helping her come up with a test prep plan for her daughter.  I told her that of course she was welcome, and asked her how she was feeling about the process now.  “Great,” she said.  “I wished we’d come to you back when we first decided to hit ‘go’ on this, and skipped the hybrid test completely.”

And that’s the problem with SAT/ACT hybrid tests: while they seem like a time-saver, they actually aren’t.  I often tell parents of 17 year-olds that junior year is busy and stressful enough.  What we try to do as a company – and what I believe all testing companies ought to do – is simplify the process to make families’ lives easier.  Students are much better off taking a real practice SAT and ACT, determining which test is best for them, and then focusing on that test.


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