Big changes afoot on the ACT exam used for college admissions

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With thousands of students across the nation taking the ACT college entrance exam on Saturday, it’s good to know about significant changes down the road that could help kids boost their scores.

For the first time in 60 years, and starting with the 2020 September test date, students who have already taken the exam will be able to retake individual sections – rather than the whole exam, the ACT company announced earlier this month.

The ACT used for college admissions has four main sections: English, reading, math and science. Each section results in a score of 1 to 36. Students also get an overall composite score across those subjects.

Retakes also are allowed for students who take a writing test, which is scored between 2 and 12.

The retakes are a big deal, particularly because a student flubbing just one section of the exam can focus only on that test, without doing the other sections all over again. Ideally, the retakes would boost scores — though that’s not a given.

Of concern is that the changes could benefit some students more than others. Some families may have the money to tutor their kids on ACT sections and pay for retakes, but other families may not. (ACT does have fee waivers for low-income families.)

For years, ACT scores have shown gaps in performance between students, particularly related to race, according to the company’s data.

For example, white students in the Class of 2018 scored an average of 22.2 across all sections of the ACT exam, while black students scored only a 16.9. Hispanic students scored 18.8, and Asian students scored 24.5.

The Class of 2019 ACT data is scheduled to be available on Oct. 30.

In other changes announced by ACT, students for the first time will be able to take the exam online or on paper, on national testing dates. The online tests will mean faster results.

In another change, students will be able use a “superscore” if they’ve taken the exam more than once. A superscore is derived from averaging a student’s best scores on the ACT subjects from all attempts at taking the exams.

Diane Rado
Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.