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Articles / Applying to College / ACT Instituting Major Changes

Oct. 10, 2019

ACT Instituting Major Changes

ACT Instituting Major Changes

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The big news this past week has been about the ACT. If you're a regular on College Confidential, you've probably seen the discussion about it. If not, perhaps you've seen the details in the media. If none of those sources crossed your path, keep reading and I'll fill you in.


Russell Schaffer, from Kaplan Test Prep, keeps me informed on the latest developments on the standardized testing front. Yesterday, he sent me this summary of the ACT news:

"... Big news about the ACT college admissions exam this morning: Beginning in September 2020, students who have taken the ACT will have the option to retake individual sections of the ACT test instead of the entire three-hour exam.

Also: Students will also have the choice of taking the ACT online, with faster test results (results perhaps within a few days) and those who take the test more than once will be provided an ACT 'superscore' that calculates their possible composite score ..."

Move Marks Major Change for ACT

That is big news. The marketing war between the ACT and SAT continues to escalate, vying for the majority of test takers around the world. It's an incredibly lucrative industry. But, as one observer noted, "It wouldn't surprise me if the SAT introduces section retakes as well. Then we'll know the tests have become irrelevant." Marketing moves sometimes inspire cynicism.

How are some others viewing these changes? Here's a statement from Sam Pritchard, director of college prep programs at Kaplan, regarding the new options on the ACT, which was taken by nearly two million high school students this year:

"These are the most significant changes to the ACT in several decades and are designed to give aspiring college students more options in putting their best foot forward. First, allowing students to retake individual test sections, rather than retaking a three hour test, will enable them to focus their energy and study efforts accordingly to improve sectional performance. Second, putting the ability to 'superscore', or aggregate the best section scores from all tests taken, into the hands of the test taker allows students to present schools with their best test performance. Finally, the shift to digital provides more immediate reporting, which can give students more flexibility. Instead of waiting for the two to eight weeks it can typically take for score reports to arrive, test takers can expect to receive their scores within two days, which gives them additional time to study or decide if they want to retake the exam."

Look for Changes to Take Effect Next Fall

The changes become effective next school year, in September 2020. Here's the official description released by the ACT:

The three new options are based on feedback from students, parents, teachers, counselors, administrators and higher education officials and supported by the organization's latest research and technology enhancements.

ACT Section Retesting: For the first time in the 60-year history of the ACT test, students who have already taken the test will be allowed to retake individual ACT section tests (English, math, reading, science and/or writing), rather than having to take the entire ACT test again.

Online testing with faster score results: Students will, for the first time, have the option of online or paper testing on national test days at ACT test centers (selected test centers initially, eventually expanding to all). The test is currently administered only on paper on national test dates. Online testing offers faster results compared to traditional paper-based administration—two days compared to around two weeks.

ACT superscoring: ACT will report a superscore for students who have taken the ACT test more than once, giving colleges the option to use the student's best scores from all test administrations, rather than scores from just one sitting, in their admission and scholarship decisions. New ACT research suggests that superscoring is actually more predictive of how students will perform in their college courses than other scoring methods.

The content and format of the ACT test itself will not change. Only the administration and reporting methods will be different. ...

Reactions to the Change Vary

I searched the web for more reactions and found these comments from a New York Times column, ACT Change Will Allow Students to Retake Individual Sections by Anemona Hartocollis:

… The new policy comes as educators, students and parents debate the role of standardized testing in college admissions and whether it is an appropriate measure of student ability or worsens persistent social inequities. A growing number of colleges and universities have made test scores an optional part of applications. But many students continue to feel compelled to score highly on the ACT and SAT exams, committing to time-consuming and often costly prep sessions to gain any edge they can.

After the change was announced on Tuesday, some parents, students and tutors wondered if the option to focus their improvement efforts would fan the frenzy over test scores, further disadvantaging students who do not have access to coaching ...

… It is not yet clear whether colleges would evaluate applicants with a superscore over multiple exams differently from those with a composite score from one exam ...

College Confidential Ask the Dean expert, Sally Rubenstone, offers her perspective to the Times:

But the ability to customize test results in this way could make test prep even more important than it is now, disadvantaging those who cannot afford it or are not advised to seek it out, said Sally Rubenstone, senior contributor at College Confidential, an online admissions forum.

"These 'improvements' don't move the admissions process any closer to the destination that I recommend, which is not eliminating tests entirely, but downgrading their importance and allowing only one — or maybe two — test sessions per student," Ms. Rubenstone said.

"I worry that most of the high-achieving kids in my orbit will retest and retest until they can bump subsections of 33 and 34 up to 35 and 36. So standardized testing will become even more of an extracurricular activity than it already is." ...

And this comment -- my emphasis added -- emphasizes the marketing implications:

Students can take the test up to 12 times, though most take it only once or twice. According to the ACT, students who take the test more than once have slightly higher first-year college grades than those who take the test a single time. The organization's theory is that those students are motivated to succeed, which translates into better academic performance.

Taking the whole test costs $52 without the optional writing section, and $68 with it. ACT officials said taking an individual section would be cheaper, but they had not yet decided on a price.

If the change encourages more students to retake portions of the exam, it may ultimately increase revenue for the organization ...

I think we can safely ignore the word "may" in that last sentence.

Finally (and obviously):

For years, the two dominant test makers, ACT and the College Board, which administers the SAT, have been locked in a competitive battle over market share. About 1.9 million students take the ACT per year, and about 2.1 million take the SAT.

Several experts said the ACT announcement would put pressure on the College Board to make similar changes to the SAT, which has two sections — math and evidence-based reading and writing. Officials at the College Board, which recently withdrew a plan to measure disadvantage with a single number on a test-taker's score report, did not return a request for comment on Tuesday.

I'm wondering about the future of online testing. If a company like Lifelock, that's built a name for itself based on the promise of helping consumers protect their identities online, can be vulnerable to hack attacks, then how long before test takers can recruit score-raising hackers? Just a thought. To paraphrase Captain Kirk: Online security: the final frontier.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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