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The ACT Test Overtakes SATs

For many years, the SAT has been the predominant standardized test that American high school students take to apply to colleges. However, for the first time, an alternative test, the ACT, overtook the SAT in 2012. Although the margin was very small, less than 2000 students, this marks a watershed in American education. The implications of this are significant for students, and therefore it is important to understand what the ACT test is, why it has come to prominence, and what this means in terms of preparation.

The ACT was created in 1959 by two staff members at the University of Iowa. Their goal was to create an alternative to the SAT that reflected changes in college attendance patterns, and provided a more accurate assessment of a student’s likelihood of succeeding in a college environment. As part of this, they set up a non-profit organization, American College Testing (ACT) in Iowa City, where it remains today.


The popularity of the ACT grew over the years in the Midwest and in the Rocky Mountains states, but it failed to gain a significant foothold on either coast. However, starting about 10 years ago, it began to penetrate new markets, partially due to dissatisfaction with the way that SATs tested students’ aptitudes. Not only are we seeing a rise in usage of the test, ACT prep tuition is also widely available from private organizations such as Huntington.

However, there were many other reasons that contributed to its growth. Bob Schaeffer, public education director at the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, has recently pointed to several of these. First of all, the contents of the ACT are more closely aligned with modern high school curricula than the SAT, covering areas such as reading, mathematics, English and science. Second, the writing portion of the ACT is optional, saving time and money if students apply to one of the many colleges that don’t require writing to be tested. Third, and of crucial importance, students have the choice of which ACT score they submit to their chosen schools, unlike with SATs, where a bad day could until recently result in an indelible mark on a student’s record. The ACT organization also aggressively marketed the test in many states, with the result that populous ones such as Illinois and Michigan use the ACT almost exclusively, with taxpayers picking up the bill.

The ACT consists of four mandatory sections and, as mentioned previously, an optional writing section.

The first section deals with English usage, structure and style. The 45-minute test contains 75 questions, focused on five reading passages. Each of the passages has underlined sections which students are asked to correct, choosing from a number of supplied options. Questions range from simple choice through to correct grammar, sentence clarity and paragraph organization.

The mathematics section lasts for 60 minutes, and consists of 60 questions. Approximately 25% of these deal with simple pre-algebraic mathematics, such as handling integers and fractions, along with basic variables and Cartesian coordinates. The remainder of the questions focus on more advanced mathematical concepts, such as intermediate algebra, coordinate geometry, Euclidean geometry, and basic trigonometry.

Reading is tested with four chosen passages, with students having to answer 10 questions related to each. Students are given 35 minutes for this task, and are expected to deal with a range of subjects, including social sciences, natural sciences, prose and the humanities.

Students are then tested for their scientific reasoning ability in a 35-minute test that includes 40 questions. The subject matter consists of seven passages, some of which present data that student must interpret, whereas others provide summaries of scientific research or differing viewpoints from scientists. This is a test of reasoning, not knowledge, with students extrapolating solely from the information provided.

Finally, there is an optional 30 minute essay that students are asked to write on a supplied topic, where they must provide their position and support it with arguments. There is also a last experimental section which does not affect students’ scores, but which instead allows the ACT to ask candidate questions for inclusion in future tests.


ACT scores range from 1 to 36, which is a normalized value related to the number of questions answered correctly. There is no penalty for incorrect answers, unlike the SAT – another potential reason why ACT testing is growing in popularity. The average scores have remained remarkably constant over recent years, unlike SAT scores, which have been declining. In general, a score between 27 and 31 is sufficient to gain admission to a highly selective institution, with selective institutions requiring 25 to 27 points, and traditional institutions looking for a minimum of 22 to 24 points.

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