ACT, Inc. says that the ACT assessment measures high school students' general educational development and their capability to complete college-level work with the multiple choice tests covering four skill areas: English, mathematics, reading, and science. The optional Writing Test measures skill in planning and writing a short essay. Specifically, ACT states that its scores provide an indicator of "college readiness," and that scores in each of the subtests correspond to skills in entry-level college courses in English, algebra, social science, humanities, and biology. According to a research study conducted by ACT, Inc., in 2003, a relationship was found between a student's ACT composite score and the possibility of him or her earning a college degree.
To develop the test, ACT incorporates the objectives for instruction for middle and high schools throughout the United States, reviews approved textbooks for subjects taught in Grades 7–12, and surveys educators on which knowledge skills are relevant to success in postsecondary education. ACT publishes a technical manual that summarizes studies conducted of its validity in predicting freshman GPA, equating different high school GPAs, and measuring educational achievement.
Colleges use the ACT and the SAT because there are substantial differences in funding, curricula, grading, and difficulty among U.S. secondary schools due to American federalism, local control, and the prevalence of private, distance, home schooled students, and a lack of a rigorous college entrance examination system like those used in some other countries. ACT/SAT scores are used to supplement the secondary school record and help admission officers put local data—such as course work, grades, and class rank—in a national perspective.
The majority of colleges do not indicate a preference for the SAT or ACT exams and accept both, being treated equally by most admissions officers. According to "Uni in the USA," colleges that also require students to take the SAT Subject Tests do so regardless of whether the candidate took the SAT or ACT; however, some colleges accept the ACT in place of the SAT subject tests and some accept the optional ACT Writing section in place of a SAT Subject Test.
Most colleges use ACT scores as only one factor in their admission process. A sampling of ACT admissions scores shows that the 75th percentile composite score was 24.1 at public four-year institutions and 25.3 at private four-year institutions. It is recommended that students check with their prospective institutions directly to understand ACT admissions requirements.
In addition, some states have used the ACT to assess the performance of schools, and require all high school students to take the ACT, regardless of whether they are college bound. Colorado and Illinois have incorporated the ACT as part of their mandatory testing program since 2001. Michigan has required the ACT since 2007, Kentucky and Tennessee require all high school juniors to take the ACT and Wyoming requires all high school juniors to take either the ACT or the ACT WorkKeys.
While the exact manner in which ACT scores will help to determine admission of a student at American institutions of higher learning is generally a matter decided by the individual institution, some foreign countries have made ACT (and SAT) scores a legal criterion in deciding whether holders of American high school diplomas will be admitted at their public universities.
The ACT is more widely used in the Midwestern, Rocky Mountain, and Southern United States, whereas the SAT is more popular on the East and West coasts. Recently, however, the ACT is being used more on the East Coast. Use of the ACT by colleges has risen as a result of various criticisms of the effectiveness and fairness of the SAT.
The required portion of the ACT is divided into four multiple choice subject tests: English, mathematics, reading, and science reasoning. Subject test scores range from 1 to 36; all scores are integers. The English, mathematics, and reading tests also have subscores ranging from 1 to 18 (the subject score is not the sum of the subscores). The composite score is the average of all four tests. In addition, students taking the optional writing test receive a writing score ranging from 1 to 36 (This is a change from the previous 2–12 score range). The writing score does not affect the composite score. The ACT has eliminated the combined English/writing score, and has added two new combined scores: The ELA will be an average of the English, Reading and Writing scores. The STEM will be an average of the Math and Science scores. All of the changes that have been listed for the writing score and the new ELA and STEM scores are effective starting on the September 2015 test.
On the ACT, each question correctly answered is worth one raw point. There is no penalty for marking incorrect answers on the multiple-choice part of the test. Therefore, a student can answer all questions without suffering a decrease in their score for questions they answer incorrectly. This is parallel to several AP Tests eliminating the penalties for incorrect answers. To improve the result, students can retake the test: 55% of students who retake the ACT improve their scores, 22% score the same, and 23% see their scores decrease.
The first section is the 45-minute English test covering usage/mechanics and rhetorical skills. The 75-question test consists of five passages with various sections underlined on one side of the page and options to correct the underlined portions on the other side of the page. More specifically, questions focus on usage and mechanics – issues such as commas, apostrophes, (misplaced/dangling) modifiers, colons, and fragments and run-ons – as well as on rhetorical skills – style (clarity and brevity), strategy, transitions, and organization (sentences in a paragraph and paragraphs in a passage).
The second section is the 60-minute, 60-question mathematics test with 14 covering pre-algebra, 10 elementary algebra, 9 intermediate algebra, 14 plane geometry, 9 coordinate geometry, and 4 elementary trigonometry questions. Calculators are permitted in this section only. The calculator requirements are stricter than the SAT's in that computer algebra systems (such as the TI-89) are not allowed; however, the ACT permits calculators with paper tapes, that make noise (but must be disabled), or that have power cords with certain "modifications" (i.e., disabling the mentioned features), which the SAT does not allow. Standard graphing calculators, such as the TI-83 and TI-84 family, are allowed. Also, this is the only section that has five instead of four answer choices.
The reading section consists of four ten-question passages, from the realm of prose fiction, social science, humanities, and natural science. The student gets 35 minutes to take this test.
The science reasoning test is a 35-minute, 40-question test. There are seven passages each followed by five to seven questions. The passages have three different formats: Data Representation, Research Summary, and Conflicting Viewpoints. While the format used to be very predictable (i.e. there were always three Data Representation passages with 5 questions following each, 3 Research Summary passages with six questions each, and one Conflicting Viewpoints passage with 7 questions), when the number of passages was reduced from 7 to 6, more variability in the number of each passage type started to appear. But so far, there is still always only one Conflicting Viewpoints passage. These changes are very recent and so the only reference to them so far is in the recently released practice test on the ACT website.
The optional writing section, which is always administered at the end of the test, is 40 minutes long (increasing from the original 30 minute time limit on the September 2015 test). Essays must be in response to a given prompt. The prompts are about broad social issues (changing from the old prompts which were directly applicable to teenagers) and students must analyze three different perspectives given, and show how their opinion relates to these perspectives. The essay does not affect the composite score or the English section score. It is only given as a separate writing score and is included in the ELA score. No particular essay structure is required. Two trained readers assign each essay subscores between 1 and 6 in four different categories: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, Language Use and Conventions. Scores of 0 are reserved for essays that are blank, off-topic, non-English, not written with a no. 2 pencil, or considered illegible after several attempts at reading. The subscores from the two different readers are summed to produce final domain scores from 2 to 12 (or 0) in each of the four categories. If the two readers' subscores differ by more than one point, then a senior third reader makes the final decision on the score. The four domain scores are combined through a process that has not been described to create a writing section score between 1 and 36. Note that the domain scores are not added to create the writing section score.
Although the writing section is optional, many colleges do require an essay score and will factor it into the admissions decision (but fewer than half of all colleges have this requirement).
For the original standardization groups, the mean composite score on the ACT was 18, and the standard deviation 6. These statistics vary from year to year for current populations of ACT takers.
The chart below summarizes each section and the average test score based on graduating high school seniors in 2014.
The table below summarizes how many students achieved a composite score of 36 on the ACT between the years of 1997 and 2014.
The ACT Assessment Student Report, at ACT.org, provides the typical ACT Composite averages for college and universities admission policies. They caution that, "because admission policies vary across colleges, the score ranges should be considered rough guidelines." Following is a list of the average composite scores that typically are accepted at colleges or universities.Highly selective (majority of accepted freshmen in top 10% of high school graduating class): scores 27–30
Selective (majority of accepted freshmen in top 25% of high school graduating class): scores 25–27
Traditional (majority of accepted freshmen in top 50% of high school graduating class): scores 22–24
Liberal (some freshmen from lower half of high school graduating class): scores 18–21
Open (all high school graduates accepted, to limit of capacity): scores 17–20
The ACT is offered four to six times a year, depending on the state, in the United States, in September, October, December, February, April, and June and is always on a Saturday except for those with credible religious obligations (who would take the test the following day, Sunday). The test can also be taken in other countries; however, availability is much less than in the United States.
"The ACT is designed, administered, and scored in such a way that there is no advantage to testing on one particular date or another."
Candidates may choose either the ACT assessment ($42.50), or the ACT assessment plus writing ($58.50).
Students with verifiable disabilities, including physical and learning disabilities, are eligible to take the test with accommodations. The standard time increase for students requiring additional time due to disabilities is 50%. Originally the score sheet was labeled that additional time was granted due to a learning disability, however this was dropped because it was deemed illegal under the Americans with Disabilities Act and could be seen as an unfair mark of disability.
Scores are sent to the student, his or her high school, and up to four colleges.
Time is a major factor to consider in testing.
The ACT is generally regarded as being composed of somewhat easier questions (versus the SAT), but the time allotted to complete each section increases the overall difficulty (equalizing it to the SAT). The ACT allots:45 minutes for a 75-question English section
60 minutes for a 60-question Mathematics section
35 minutes for a 40-question Reading section
35 minutes for a 40-question Science section
Comparatively, the SAT is structured such that the test taker is allowed at least one minute per question, on generally shorter sections (25 or fewer questions).
Forty-five percent—1,480,469 students—of the 2009 high school graduating class took the ACT. The average composite score was a 21.1 in 2009. Of 2009 test-takers, 668,165 (or 45%) were males, 808,097 (or 55%) were females, and 4,207 (or 0.3%) did not report a gender. Nationwide, 638 students who reported that they would graduate in 2009 received the highest ACT composite score of 36.
The following is based on an official ACT ACT-SAT concordance chart. ACT percentiles are calculated on the basis of the percent of test takers scoring the same score or a lower one, not (as is the case for many other assessments) only the percent scoring lower.
American Mensa is a high IQ society that allows use of the ACT for membership admission if the test was taken prior to September 1989. A composite score of 29 or above is required. The Triple Nine Society also accepts the old ACT test for admission, with a qualifying score of 32; after September 1989 the qualifying score is 34. The Epimetheus Society accepts the ACT as well, accepting scores of 35 or higher, regardless of when the test was administered.