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June 2020 Update: ACT has announced that the launch of section retesting has been postponed to fall of 2021. The postponement was to accommodate the larger number of students needing to take the full test in the fall after COVID-related test cancellations in spring of 2020.

One Thing is Constant: Change 

ACT is introducing three major changes: 1) providing superscore reporting; 2) allowing single section retesting; and 3) administering test sections on computer, not on pencil and paper. These changes are controversial, and I’ll summarize the pros and cons of each change below. 

First, however, I want to provide some context. After twenty years of preparing students for standardized tests, I’ve learned when it comes to ACT and SAT, one thing is constant: change. 

Since its inception in 1959, ACT has undergone significant changes. In the 1980s, the “enhanced” ACT increased focus on problem-solving skills through the introduction of Reading and Science Reasoning sections, replacing the previous version’s Social Studies and Natural Science sections, and in 2005 ACT appended a new Essay section. Unlike previous, more structural changes, the forthcoming 2020 ACT changes affect only how the test is administered, not constructed. 

While these upcoming ACT changes will be significant, they are trivial compared to the identity crisis that ACT’s rival SAT has experienced. Since it was introduced in 1926, the SAT has changed its name four times, and its construct has undergone eight significant revisions. It was originally called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, then the Scholastic Assessment Test, then the SAT I: Reasoning Test, then the SAT Reasoning Test, and now simply the SAT.

These name changes have paralleled shifts in the test’s identity. Initially designed as an adapted version of an IQ test, the first SAT was intended to give a snapshot of intrinsic academic promise. Early adopters included the then-president of Harvard University, who appreciated that the SAT measured intelligence rather than quality of high school education. Over time, the SAT has changed radically in content, construct, and purpose. One revealing way to see this shift is through analysis of number of questions and time per question on the SAT, at its inception in 1926 and today. 

Test Questions Minutes Seconds/Question
1926 SAT 315 97 18
Current SAT 154 180 70

From a student’s perspective, the current SAT allows 289% more time per question than initially provided in 1926—a shift that allows for a dramatically different problem-solving approach. Relaxing time pressure and including academic content much more like that which students see in school, the SAT has shifted from an intelligence test to an academic achievement test, a seismic shift. The most recent SAT revision in 2016 explicitly aligned the test with the Common Core State Standards and high school curricula. Today, the writers of the SAT state explicitly that the best way to prepare for the SAT is to take and excel in challenging high school coursework.

ACT’s identity, on the other hand, has always been clear since Everett Franklin Lindquist, Professor of Education at University of Iowa, first designed it: ACT is a test of academic achievement, not IQ. However, how you administer a test matters, and what 2020 promises is big changes in ACT’s administration.

Superscore Reporting: Show Your Best Test-taking Self

ACT will now report a superscore to colleges for students that test more than once. What does this mean?

If a student took the ACT on one official test date and scored a composite 25 with a 30 in English, a 20 in Math, a 30 in Reading, and a 20 in Science and then re-tested and scored another composite 25 but this time with a 20 in English, a 30 in Math, a 20 in Reading, and a 30 in Science, the ACT will report that student’s superscore, that is, the highest scores in each subject between those two tests.

Test English Math Reading Science Comp
First Test 30 20 30 20 25
Re-Test 20 30 20 30 25

That student then would report a 30: 30 in English, 30 in Math, 30 in Reading, and 30 in Science.

ACT’s research purports that the superscore offers colleges the most accurate performance metric rather than a single test administration when predicting college success. With superscoring, ACT is moving in the direction of SAT, which has offered superscoring—or “composite scoring”—for many years.


Superscoring reduces stress on students

It’s difficult to perform at your best in four different subjects all at once. Delivering your best English, Math, Reading, and Science on one day on one test is challenging. Superscoring takes the pressure off, allowing students to peak in different subjects on different test events and still display show their very best test-taking self, wrapped up neatly in one superscore.


Superscoring could promote “gaming” the testing process

Superscoring should not lead students to game the test. Students should not take the approach that they can try hard on two of the four sections and forget about the rest, and then try hard on the other two sections on the next test. If there is a large discrepancy between scores, a student’s tests can be flagged as potentially invalid, leading ACT to question the accuracy or honesty of the student’s performance.

Allowing Single Section Retesting: ↑Focus = ↑Score

ACT will allow students to retest after taking a full-length ACT at least once, and, when retesting, students can elect to take only one, two, or three of the four total sections. What does this mean?

If a student takes a full-length ACT and does well in the first three sections—English, Math, Reading—but does not like the score of the Science section, the fourth section, that student can retest and elect to only test on the Science section (and then superscore the results).


Single-subject testing could increase focus, reduce fatigue, and enhance performance

After twenty years of tutoring students for the ACT, I’ve heard many common refrains, and one is this: “I could do well on the Science if I wasn’t so tired at the end of the test.” By approaching the Science section as a standalone, students can feel fresh and focused, and performance could improve. Taking standalone sections—particularly in Reading and Science—could prove to have a substantial, positive impact on the student test-taking experience.


Single-subject testing could undermine validity

ACT has found that students perform similarly on subjects regardless of test order, supporting their shift to retesting. With this change, the question remains: will retaking individual sections increase the standard error of measurement for a composite score, making scores less reliable?

Single-subject testing could promote inequity

Retesting will cost money, and students with more means will benefit from the opportunity, while those with less won’t. In an assessment marketplace mired in controversy around the question of “what is fair?”, any policy that directly or indirectly exacerbates already entrenched inequity is misdirected to say the least.

Administering Test Sections on Computer: Screen-time vs. Pencil & Paper

Beginning in September 2020, testers at selected test centers will be able to opt in to computer-based testing.


Faster results

Testing online offers quicker score release, as scores from online test dates are released only two days after testing. Scores from pencil and paper exams are returned approximately ten days after testing.


Online testing could undermine validity

Research from The College Board found that students testing online outperformed students taking pencil and paper tests on Reading sections (though not on Writing or Math). However, students taking the national PARCC exams (Common Core assessments) on computer underperformed compared to students testing with pencil and paper. ACT’s study on online vs. pencil and paper comparability found that test scores were higher and omission rates were lower for students testing online. In both cases, the testing companies employ equating methodology to use different scales for online testers. It’s certainly clear that further research is needed to ensure both modes allow for fair testing experiences for all students.

Online testing could limit a student’s academic strategies

One of the most effective instructional strategies for enhancing reading comprehension is strategic annotation, which relies on heavy pencil work – the physical engagement with the text and the test-taker’s pencil. Strategic annotation prompts attention, focus, and the identification of main ideas and most salient details. On tests of evidence-based reasoning, students who can only scan texts visually rather than physically engage them may lose focus and miss detail.

Next Steps

These three changes will go into effect for the September 2020 national test date. We do not yet know how colleges and universities will react to superscoring: it’s possible some or many do not accept the new superscore. Policies have yet to be set. As we acquire more information, we’ll share it with you and help guide you with the most thoughtful strategy on how best to react to these changes.

Since 2001, we at Academic Approach have seen many changes in the testing landscape, but one thing remains the same: tests are standardized; students are not. We are here to help each student navigate the journey to higher education and improved academic performance with a personalized approach. Along the way, we will help you grow, acquire high-impact academic skills, and make the best decisions especially in changing times.

Matthew Pietrafetta founded Academic Approach in 2001 and currently serves as the Chief Executive Officer. Matthew earned his M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. degrees in English Language and Literature at Columbia University in New York City.

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