Changes to the ACT: What families need to know

On October 7th, the ACT announced that significant changes to the ACT will be implemented in September 2020:

Students will be able to choose to take the ACT on a computer rather than with pencil and paper. The ACT has hinted at computer-based online testing for quite some time, already offering this format internationally, and it is reasonable to expect The College Board, which administers the SAT, to follow suit in the not-too-distant future. The GRE, which is taken for graduate school admissions, has been a strictly computer-based test for years. For the time being, students taking the ACT will be able to choose between online testing and the ‘old-fashioned’ way. However, this may not always be the case, given the significant benefits of online testing, which include ease and speed of score reporting (scores will be returned to students within 48 hours, rather than several weeks). There will be a learning curve for the test prep industry as it gets to know the online testing tools that the ACT provides to testers, including options to highlight text, cross out answers, and search the text for specific words. Test-takers themselves will likely find the transition to be much less remarkable and likely better aligned with how they most frequently encounter information in their day-to-day lives. Online testing is indeed a meaningful change, and concerns about equity are well-justified: how will online testing impact students who live in under-resourced districts that may not be able to accommodate technology-dependent testing? The ACT assures us that online testing will be widely available at testing centers, but infrastructure challenges are inevitable, and some are skeptical that the ACT can follow through on this policy change.

Students can choose to have their ACT Superscore sent to colleges. Superscoring, an admissions policy that calculates a new composite score (or average) from a student’s four best sectional scores from however many ACTs they have taken, is increasingly widespread. Up until now students have had to submit multiple tests in order to superscore. Beginning next September, the ACT will provide a single score report that consists of a student’s best sectional scores, though it is not yet clear whether all colleges will accept this report. With superscoring, students benefit from a decreased emphasis on achieving one across-the-board ‘best’ test, colleges benefit by using superscoring to boost their admitted class’s average test scores, and the ACT benefits by further incentivizing retesting, which itself is about to change dramatically…

Students who are retesting will be able to choose which sections to take. Students who are unhappy with a single sectional score will soon be able to retest for just that one section. Students are spared the exercise of retaking the entire 3+ hour test, and they can better target their preparation for each test date. For many students, this is a win; for the ACT, it may be a windfall. The SAT subreddit was flooded with memes and posts about students planning to switch to the ACT to take advantage of this change, and the ACT will likely see an uptick in students retesting just to improve one or two sections. There may be long-term strategic benefit to the ACT, too. Treating the four sections of the test as separate entities may allow the ACT more flexibility as Test Optional Policies continue to spread. Colleges could one day require individual sections of the ACT, better tailoring their testing requirements to the demands of a particular major. However, we must again ask about equity: how will section retesting impact students who are most disadvantaged?

Studies have confirmed that low-income students are already less likely to retest than their wealthier peers. Section retesting opens the door to a host of strategies for students with means. Some students may take an initial test, then retest for each section separately, preparing intensively for one section at a time, a far more manageable task than balancing simultaneous preparation for all four sections. It is likely that many students will retest for the Reading and/or Science sections in particular, as these are the final sections of the test and fatigue has set in by the time students get to them, particularly if a student is taking a test with an extended time accommodation. By sitting for only the Reading or Science section, students will feel fresher and likely improve their results. But which students will adopt savvy strategies that capitalize on the changes to the ACT? Likely it will be the students who already benefit from high-quality test prep, a well-resourced school whose guidance counselor’s have a manageable student load, and a family with the means, resources, and experience to navigate an increasingly complex admissions process. Both Computer Based Testing and ACT Section Retests have the potential to benefit students by offering flexibility and ease-of-use, but they also have the potential to widen the chasm of inequality in education by accommodating strategies that will inevitably be employed by the students who already exercise the most privilege in accessing higher education.

The world of standardized testing is complicated, and it is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Open Door Education is here to help students, families, and organizations successfully navigate the testing process, anticipating and strategizing for whatever changes may come.


What You Need to Know About the PSAT

The Preliminary SAT, or PSAT, is a standardized test administered by The College Board and cosponsored by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation in the United States. It is often taken by high school students during the fall of their junior year.

What’s on the PSAT?

Reading (60 Minutes)

Students answer 47 questions from one literature excerpt, one historical document, one humanities passage, and two science-themed articles.

Writing (35 Minutes)

44 questions test students’ understanding of standard English conventions (punctuation, sentence structure, and usage) as well as logical organization and development of ideas.

Math (Two sections: 25 minutes no-calculator, 45 minutes calculator active)

The Math score is based on two sections, the first with 17 questions and the second with 31 questions. There are three major question categories:

• Heart of Algebra (linear and quadratic equations and systems)

• Problem Solving and Data Analysis (interpreting graphs and charts and using basic statistical operations)

• Passport to Advanced Math (understanding and manipulating complex equations)

The majority of the content focuses on pre-Algebra and Algebra skills; Geometry accounts for a very small portion of the test.

Why take the PSAT?

Taking the PSAT can help students gain familiarity with the experience of taking an admissions test, but without the pressure since PSAT scores are not sent to colleges. In addition, the results provide valuable feedback about a student’s strengths and challenges. Students who take the PSAT are entered into the competition for National Merit Scholarships.

Why skip the PSAT?

For most, scholarship eligibility is not a sufficient reason to take the PSAT; very few students (<1%) ultimately receive a National Merit Scholarship. Additionally, if a student is better suited to the ACT, then the PSAT may not be a helpful preview of admissions testing.

How does the PSAT compare with the SAT?

The SAT and PSAT are very similar in structure and content, but there are a few notable differences, including:

• The PSAT is slightly shorter and not quite as difficult as the SAT

• The PSAT does not include an optional Essay section

• Each section of the PSAT has a maximum score of 760, and each section of the SAT has a maximum score of 800

When will results be available?

PSAT results are typically available mid-December. High school counselors receive the scores and then distribute them to students. Scores are available on The College Board website approximately one week after they are sent to high schools.

How can Open Door Education help?

Preparation for the PSAT is not essential. However, for students seeking to make the most of their PSAT, Open Door Education teaches the skills and strategies that help students to succeed on test day by providing one-on-one personalized tutoring in all sections of the PSAT. Students who work with a tutor at Open Door Education feel confident and prepared on test day, and are better equipped to answer the most challenging questions in each section of the test.

What else should I do?

The first half of junior year is an ideal time for students to determine which test, the SAT or the ACT, is a better fit for them. The best way to make this decision is to take a diagnostic test of each and then meet with a test expert at Open Door Education for a complimentary consultation to establish a game plan. Students preparing for college admissions testing can sign up for a free diagnostic SAT and ACT by visiting opendoor.education/calendar today!

By Matt McNicholas, Open Door Education Principal Tutor & Co-Owner