The three-hour ACT has four sections, English, math, reading, and science, and each section earns a scaled score between 1 and 36. Starting next fall, a student who earns a low score in math will be able to sign up and pay to only retake that section. 

Big changes to ACT: Students able to retake individual sections rather than entire test

Changes will also include digital testing with scores in two days rather than two weeks

In changes announced today, high school students will be allowed to retake individual sections of the ACT college admissions test rather than having to sit again for the entire three-hour test in an effort to raise their scores. 

The new ACT policies go into effect next fall. Colleges that require standardized admissions tests accept either the ACT or the SAT. These changes are likely designed to make the ACT more attractive to test-takers.

For the first time in the ACT’s 60-year history, students who have already taken the exam will be allowed to sign up to take an individual section at a prorated fee. 

Each section -- English, math, reading, science and/or writing -- earns a scaled score between 1 and 36 that contributes to a composite score, also scaled to 36. So, a student who did well on every section but math will be able to register to retake only math starting in September of 2020.

In some testing centers, students will be able to choose between digital or paper versions of the ACT. The online version will produce results in two days, compared to two weeks or more for the paper-and-pencil version. The test is now administered only on paper on national test dates.

In another change, the ACT itself will calculate and send colleges “superscores,” which combine a student’s highest scores across all testing dates. Many colleges already superscore, but now the ACT will automatically calculate a student’s highest possible ACT composite score based on all their results.

“With these changes, ACT is evolving to meet students in the digital world in which they live. We want to do a better job of helping them succeed,” said Suzana Delanghe, ACT chief commercial officer in a statement today.

“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,” said Sam Pritchard, director of college prep programs, Kaplan Test Prep.

“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,” said Pritchard. “Finally, the shift to digital provides more immediate reporting, which can give students more flexibility. Instead of waiting for the 2-8 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.”

The ACT has made few major changes to its college entrance test. In 2005, an optional writing section was added.

“Making retesting more manageable may motivate certain students to retake test sections several times, which can feed into unnecessary test anxiety. Students should go into test day believing this will be the only time they’ll take the test, rather than relying on retest options,” said Pritchard.  “And not all students and high schools have internet access to practice the digital test format, which is why the test maker’s decision to keep a paper-and-pencil format option is important in ensuring all students continue to have access and options.”

Not everyone applauded the changes to the ACT. Robert Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, said, “Clear winners here are the testing companies -- ACT, in this case -- and the test-prep industry, which will face even more demand from already advantaged families to figure out how to maximize their reported scores. Losers are kids from historically disadvantaged backgrounds whose scores will fall further behind because they will not know how to ‘game’ the new system and many school counselors/test supervisors who will have to spend more poorly-paid time administering a confusing set of options.”

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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