ACT unveiled a series of redesigns that it hopes will entice more high school students to its four-part test, which includes English, math, reading and science.

Are changes to college admissions tests helpful to students? 

New ACT policy on retaking individual sections carries requirement kids test online

Sometimes, we forget the ACT and SAT are consumer products, competing for market share among college-bound high school students. To that end, makers of both college admissions tests announced changes this year aimed at making them more relevant.

The SAT rolled out and then walked back a new score it planned to assign students based on the adversity and inequality they faced in their schools and neighborhoods. Announced in May, the hardship score met with widespread criticism, leading the College Board to drop the idea in August.

In the meantime, the ACT unveiled a series of redesigns beginning next fall that it hopes will entice more high school students to its four-part test. Each section -- English, math, reading and science -- earns a scaled score between 1 and 36 that contributes to a composite score, also scaled to 36.

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

In another change, students who take the ACT online will get their scores back in as soon as two days, rather than in 10 to 14 days for paper tests.

The ACT revision drawing the most chatter among parents and students will allow test-takers to retake individual test sections, rather than plodding through the entire three-hour test, as they must do now to try and improve their score.

However, the retake option imposes a condition that bears discussion. Retakes of specific sections must be digital. Most Georgia students take the paper versions of the SAT and ACT as few host high schools are willing --- or able -- to provide computers to test-takers. But there is a push to expand online testing accessibility.

Something for parents to consider is that evidence suggests that students, even those we regard as digital natives, score better on paper and pencil tests that digital ones.

Researchers for the American Institutes for Research examined two years of results (2015 and 2016) from statewide assessments in Massachusetts and found the students testing on paper scored higher than peers using computers.

That does not surprise Brian Eufinger, co-founder of the Atlanta-based tutoring company Edison Prep, which puts kids through full mock practice tests with all 215 questions across the four sections of the ACT.

"The number of kids who finish all 215 questions on their initial mock ACT paper test, before practicing, is approximately 15 percent," he said. When test-takers sit down to a mock digital ACT, Eufinger says, "Almost none would get to all 215 questions."

"We’ve asked our students in class if they would like the idea of taking the online ACT with the exact same timing structure, no extra time given for the fact that you can't write on the test, have to re-draw math diagrams, and can't annotate. Like clockwork, over 90% said that losing the ability to write on the actual booklet would kill their timing and said paper was their preference," said Eufinger.

Also, Eufinger and other test tutors say there’s value to students retaking the entire ACT even if their goal, for example, is only to improve their math performance. They just might register a bump in the reading or science section.

A growing list of colleges have embraced test-optional admissions, but most selective schools, including Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia and Emory, still require applicants to submit ACT or SAT scores.

Even the University of Chicago, the most prestigious campus to declare itself test optional, states on its website, “We encourage students to take standardized tests like the SAT and ACT, and to share your scores with us if you think that they are reflective of your ability and potential. Given that many of our peers do require testing, we anticipate that the vast majority of students will continue to take tests and may still submit their test scores to UChicago.”

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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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