Diversity in biological communities frequently is compared using species accumulation curves, plotting observed species richness versus sample size. When species accumulation curves intersect, the ranking of communities by observed species richness depends on sample size, creating inconsistency in comparisons of diversity. We show that species accumulation curves for two communities are expected to intersect when the community with lower actual species richness has higher Simpson diversity (probability that two random individuals belong to different species). This may often occur when comparing communities that differ in habitat heterogeneity or disturbance, as we illustrate using data from neotropical butterflies. In contrast to observed species richness, estimated Simpson diversity always produces a consistent expected ranking among communities across sample sizes, with the statistical accuracy to confidently rank communities using small samples. Simpson diversity should therefore be particularly useful in rapid assessments to prioritize areas for conservation.