Within the last few days, ACT, Inc., makers of the ACT college admissions exam, made a major announcement about changes in the administration of the test they are planning to roll out starting in September 2020. As with any change in either of the two top college admissions exams, the SAT or the ACT, major news outlets such as the New York Times led a round handwringing and speculating about how the changes to the ACT could simultaneously make the college admissions process more challenging for students and sound the imminent death knell for standardized testing. Neither position is based on a real understanding of the testing landscape.
Currently, around two million students take the ACT each year. Students submit their scores to colleges during the college admissions process during which colleges place varying degrees of importance on those scores. Generally, grades are the most important factor in college admissions, but many colleges utilize testing results as a tool for eliminating unqualified and borderline candidates. The ACT is slightly less popular than the SAT for this purpose, although virtually all colleges and universities in the United States accept either test equally.
The ACT consists of five sections: English (grammar), Math, Reading, Science, and the optional Writing Test (essay). Until the announced changes go into effect, students must sign up for the full ACT, meaning all four multiple choice sections, but can decided whether or not to take the essay. At Livius, we recommend students take the essay at least once, so that students have an essay result in the event they end up applying to one or more schools which request or require an essay score for admissions consideration.
The changes announced by ACT, Inc., do not seem to indicate any change to the content or format of the test, but will have an impact on how students experience the ACT. The seemingly most important part of the changes have to do with a concept known as superscoring.
Superscoring is very common regarding SAT scores. Students who take the SAT more than once can find themselves in a situation in which they earn a lower score in one of the two SAT individual sections – Evidence-Based Reading & Writing (English) or Math – when they take the SAT for a second or third time in the hope of improving on previous results.
For example a student who scored a 600 in English and 550 in Math on the May 2019 SAT might take the October SAT in an attempt to improve the math result, but instead earn a 580 in English while improving to a 610 in Math. Colleges recognize this does not mean the student suddenly became less knowledgable in English, so they count the May 2019 English score of 600 and the October 2019 Math score of 610 in the student’s file.
Due to the way the ACT is scored, the four multiple choice section scores are averaged into a Composite score, colleges have been far less likely over the last two decades to superscore ACT results. The first change proposed by ACT, Inc., is that students will be able to sign up to take only an individual section of the ACT, instead of having to take the full test the second, third, or beyond, time they take the test. In this way, a student who has earned a disappointing result in one section, the Science section for example, can dedicate herself to improving that result through study and practice, and then take that section only, avoiding the embarrassing result of seeing one of the other three section scores go down. ACT, Inc., hopes that colleges will then consider the top individual section scores submitted by students and create a superscore Composite in student files.
Other changes announced by ACT, Inc., run from mundane to startling. ACT, Inc., appears to have raised the price on the ACT starting next September from $44 without the essay and $60 with the essay to $52 without the essay and $68 with the essay, although they have refused to announce the pricing for taking a single section. Additionally, they have not said if students can take two or even three individual sections in a single sitting.
A second announcement is a limit on the number of times a student can register for the ACT. Starting next September, there will be a limit of 12 testings for the ACT. Previously, there was no known limit on the number of times a student could take the ACT. Considering that students can now take a single section, following an initial full testing, the limit seems designed to keep students from taking one section at a time, every testing, for years on end.
Most interestingly, ACT has finally rolled out their computer-based testing nationally. For most of the last decade, ACT, Inc., has promised that they would begin to transition the ACT from a paper-based to computer-based test. After several well-documented failures in beta tests in Tennessee and Kentucky, ACT rolled out limited weekday in-school administrations at partner schools in those two states. Starting next September, students across the US will be able to take the ACT on a computer at testing centers and at schools with appropriate computer infrastructure on the same day as the majority of students take the test with pencil and paper. ACT previously stated that their ultimate goal is that all students will take the ACT on computer, and this seems the first real step toward that goal.
ACT, Inc., made no mention of adaptive testing, in which questions vary in difficulty based on student performance. Other computer-based exams, such as the GRE, which college students and graduates take during the graduate school admissions process, have used adaptive testing for years. When the ACT first announced their ambitions in computer-based testing over a decade ago, they planned to make the ACT adaptive, but the recent announcement regarding the limited computer-based administration seems to indicate that students taking the test with pencil and paper and those taking the test via computer will be taking the exact same exam.
ACT, Inc., claims that the upcoming changes are in response to evidence that both the SAT and ACT are designed to favor students of wealth over students of limited means. It is the hope of the makers of the ACT that allowing students to take the test piecemeal and in multiple formats will help students of limited financial means perform to their full potential. Whether that goal is met or not is yet to be seen.