Everyone has probably heard about changes to the SAT, and its initial debut coming up on March 5th; but not many people are aware of changes the ACT recently made. The most notable feature is the ACT essay and how it is scored. There has been a bit of controversy about the new scoring, as many students who have historically done well on the ACT essay are finding their scores surprisingly low. There are also new items on the score report, including predictions of how well a student will do in college level classes, that will seen by colleges but not students! Read below for more detail on the changes and tips for success (if you’re short on time, focus on the bold text).
Before I explain the changes and suggested strategies, I want to review the test structure. The ACT has four test sections: A 75-question/45-minute English section followed by a 60-question/60-minute Math section; then a 10-15 minute break followed by a 40-question/35-minute Reading section and a 40-question/35-minute Science section. Then there is a break, and an optional 40-minute Essay. The ACT is scored on a composite of 1-36; a rounded average of the four section scores. There is no penalty for wrong answers. One important thing to note is that as you get into the upper echelons of scoring, answering one additional answer correctly can raise a section score by 2 points. So it is very important to stay focused and answer all questions (even if all you can do is guess, or better yet, eliminate answers then guess).
The English section consists of Fundamentals of Grammar, Usage and Punctuation. Math covers everything students have learned from 3rd grade up until now. There are trigonometry questions and pre-calculus topics but no actual calculus. Reading requires the student to find content and draw meaning from various passages. The Science section is more about analyzing graphs, charts and tables to draw conclusions than it is about scientific topics. The Essay involves creating a logical, persuasive argument that supports the student’s position as well as analyzes others’ perspectives.
Tips for improving your score in each section:
English: Review grammar and usage rules, read the questions carefully, look for clues in the questions to guide you to the correct and incorrect answers, and reread the sentence with your answer to make sure it makes sense.
Math: Review high school , middle school and elementary school math. Most of what is on the test will be from material you learned a while ago (i.e. absolute values). Look at the answers before doing calculations to rule out obviously wrong answer choices; and plug in answer choices and substitute values to help get through this section more quickly. Don’t be afraid to draw charts and work out problems on your booklet to help you.
Reading: Speed Read! Skim the passage first for overall structure or go right to the questions first. Use your pencil to highlight important elements of the questions and/or passage. Eliminate answers that are obviously wrong.
Science: Be familiar with Experimental Procedure and ready to analyze both procedure and results. Know where to find the information. If you’re asked about procedure, look to the text first. If you are asked about results, go to the chart or graph first. It is a very fast section. Speed is important, but be mindful to read questions and data carefully.
Update on the Changes:
Starting in June 2014, the ACT quietly introduced some career-focused changes. It wants to be the #1 assessment test for schools beginning in the 3rd grade: (http://www.discoveractaspire.org/). They also offer the ACT Profile https://www.actprofile.org, which includes career-readiness assessments and a social media component to share college-related information with others.
The ACT test itself has increased the difficulty of its math questions slightly, which can be helpful to students in higher-level math as the material is more recent. One of the reading topics now requires a comparative evaluation between two passages. The science section has the same number of questions as before, but one less science passage (6 vs. 7). There is a new writing prompt format and time limit (now 40 minutes in length vs. 30). And the Score Report has changed, adding additional elements that colleges can see but students cannot! (Look here to see what colleges see: http://bit.ly/actcollegereport.)
The “Enhanced” writing test, introduced in September 2015, is intended to better represent high school writing and provide more detailed data to high schools and colleges. So far, it has resulted in a much more challenging scoring structure. Two readers still read each essay, with each providing four scores on a scale from 1-6 in the following areas: 1) Ideas and Analysis 2) Development and Support 3) Organization 4) Language Use and Conventions. All the scores are added together for a possible score range of 8-48. That score is then scaled to a range from 1-36. The new scores have been generally lower. Before September, a score of 8 indicated college-readiness, and now would be recorded as a 25; an old 9 is a 29, 10 is 31, and 11 is a 34. In comparison to a top score of 36, a writing score of 25 might seem shocking to a student with a composite score of 30.
There are some reported discrepancies that can’t be explained by the new scaling system alone. If you receive what you believe is a low writing score, you can use the rescoring feature for a $50 fee. For more information, check out http://bit.ly/essaycorrection. If the ACT improves your score, the $50 fee will be waived. I am hoping that the scoring issues will be corrected, and students won’t have to use this feature. It’s important to note that more colleges are choosing to waive the essay requirements for both the ACT and the new SAT. To learn individual school’s policies, check out the admissions page on the college’s website or use this tool: http://actapps.act.org/writPrefRM/.
The new score report has added a STEM score. They simply average the Math and Science score. They also added an ELA score, which is only calculated if the student has taken the optional writing portion, as it is an average of the English, Reading and Writing sections. They’ve added a “Text complexity progress indicator”, which is based on responses to the Reading test. It assesses students’ ability to recognize subtlety in the text, nuances in language use and structural complexity of paragraphs and sentences. Students are noted as “below proficient”, “proficient” or “above proficient”.
There is one new thing that colleges will see on the report that students and parents will not be able to see (learn more about it here: http://www.act.org/standard/). It provides colleges with grade predictions in a variety of general coursework based on whether ACT scores meet college readiness standards/benchmarks. What are these Benchmarks? 18 for English, 22 for Math, 22 for Reading and 23 for Science are the scores the ACT has determined makes a student “College Ready”.
On the report colleges see, the “GPA Chances of Success” predicts a student’s chances of getting a “C” or better and a “B” or better in core classes, compared to other students. Here’s one potentially troublesome situation I see: Students are asked to fill out a lot of personal information when registering, including grades, interests, activities and possible future majors. What if the student indicates they are interested in accounting but scores 19 on the math section? Colleges will see on the student’s ACT report his chances of getting a “C” or better in college algebra is only 18%. This might be a red flag to colleges.
Most colleges have not stated how or if they will be using this information. Since this is unknown, I recommend that students only fill in the required information when registering for the ACT (or SAT). If students are looking for career exploration ideas, they can try resources such as My Next Move or My Majors, where there information will not be used in college admissions.