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ACT (examination)

The ACT (/ s t/ ay-see-tee; originally an abbreviation of American College Testing)[1] college readiness assessment is a standardized test for high school achievement and college admissions in the United States produced by ACT, Inc.[1] It was first administered in November 1959 by Everett Franklin Lindquist as a competitor to the College Board's Scholastic Aptitude Test, now the SAT Reasoning Test.[2] The ACT originally consisted of four tests: English, Mathematics, Social Studies, and Natural Sciences. In 1989, the Social Studies test was changed into a Reading section (which included a Social Studies subsection) and the Natural Sciences test was renamed the Science Reasoning test, with more emphasis on problem solving skills.[3] In February 2005, an optional Writing test was added to the ACT, mirroring changes to the SAT that took place later in March of the same year. In the Spring of 2015, the ACT will start to be offered as a computer-based test that will incorporate some optional Constructed Response Questions; the test content, composite score and multiple choice format will not be affected by these changes. The test will continue to be offered in the paper format for schools that are not ready to transition to computer testing.[4]

The ACT has seen a gradual increase in the number of test takers since its inception, and in 2011 the ACT surpassed the SAT for the first time in total test takers; that year, 1,666,017 students took the ACT and 1,664,479 students took the SAT.[5] All four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. accept the ACT,[6] but different institutions place different emphases on standardized tests such as the ACT, compared to other factors of evaluation such as class rank, GPA, and extracurricular activities. The main four tests are scored individually on a scale of 1–36, and a Composite score is provided which is the whole number average of the four scores.


ACT, Inc. says that the ACT assessment measures high school students' general educational development and their capability to complete college-level work with the multiple choice tests covering four skill areas: English, mathematics, reading, and science. The optional Writing Test measures skill in planning and writing a short essay.[7] Specifically, ACT states that its scores provide an indicator of "college readiness", and that scores in each of the subtests correspond to skills in entry-level college courses in English, algebra, social science, humanities, and biology.[8] According to a research study conducted by ACT, Inc., in 2003, a relationship was found between a student's ACT composite score and the possibility of he or she earning a college degree.[9]

To develop the test, ACT incorporates the objectives for instruction for middle and high schools throughout the United States, reviews approved textbooks for subjects taught in Grades 7–12, and surveys educators on which knowledge skills are relevant to success in postsecondary education. ACT publishes a technical manual that summarizes studies conducted of its validity in predicting freshman GPA, equating different high school GPAs, and measuring educational achievement.[10]

Colleges use the ACT and the SAT Reasoning Test because there are substantial differences in funding, curricula, grading, and difficulty among U.S. secondary schools due to American federalism, local control, and the prevalence of private, distance, home schooled students and, most importantly, lack of rigorous college entrance examination system like those used in other countries. ACT/SAT scores are used to supplement the secondary school record and help admission officers put local data—such as course work, grades, and class rank—in a national perspective.

The majority of colleges do not indicate a preference for the SAT or ACT exams and accept both, being treated equally by most admissions officers.[11] According to Uni in the USA, colleges that also require students to take the SAT Subject Tests do so regardless of whether the candidate took the SAT Reasoning or ACT test;[11] however, some colleges accept the optional ACT Writing section in the place of a SAT Subject Test.[12]

Most colleges use ACT scores as only one factor in their admission process. A sampling of ACT admissions scores shows that the 75th percentile composite score was 24.1 at public four-year institutions and 25.3 at private four-year institutions. It is recommended that students check with their prospective institutions directly to understand ACT admissions requirements.

In addition, some states have used the ACT to assess the performance of schools, and require all high school students to take the ACT, regardless of whether they are college bound. Colorado and Illinois have incorporated the ACT as part of their mandatory testing program since 2001. Michigan has required the ACT since 2007, Kentucky and Tennessee require all high school juniors to take the ACT and Wyoming requires all high school juniors to take either the ACT or the ACT WorkKeys.[13]

While the exact manner in which ACT scores will help to determine admission of a student at American institutions of higher learning is generally a matter decided by the individual institution, some foreign countries have made ACT (and SAT) scores a legal criterion in deciding whether holders of American high school diplomas will be admitted at their public universities.


The ACT is more widely used in the Midwestern, Rocky Mountain, and Southern United States, while the SAT is more popular on the East and West coasts. Recently, however, the ACT is being used more on the East Coast.[14] Use of the ACT by colleges has risen as a result of various criticisms of the effectiveness and fairness of the SAT. American Mensa is a high IQ society that allows use of the ACT for membership admission if the test was taken prior to September 1989. A composite score of 29 or above is required.[15] The Triple Nine Society also accepts the old ACT test for admission, with a qualifying score of 32; after September 1989 the qualifying score is 34.[16]


The required portion of the ACT is divided into four multiple choice subject tests: English, mathematics, reading, and science reasoning. Subject test scores range from 1 to 36; all scores are integers. The English, mathematics, and reading tests also have subscores ranging from 1 to 18. (The subject score is not the sum of the subscores.) The composite score is the average of all four tests. In addition, students taking the writing test receive a writing score ranging from 2 to 12, a combined English/writing score ranging from 1 to 36 (based on the writing score and English score), and one to four comments on the essay from the essay scorers. The writing score does not affect the composite score.

On the ACT, each question correctly answered is worth one raw point. Unlike the SAT, there is no penalty for marking incorrect answers on the multiple-choice part of the test. Therefore, a student can answer all questions without suffering a decrease in their score for questions they answer incorrectly. This is parallel to several AP Tests eliminating the penalties for incorrect answers. To improve the result, students can retake the test: 55% of students who retake the ACT improve their scores, 22% score the same, and 23% see their scores decrease.[17]


The first section is the 45-minute English test covering usage/mechanics and rhetorical skills. The 75-question test consists of five passages with various sections underlined on one side of the page and options to correct the underlined portions on the other side of the page. More specifically, questions focus on usage and mechanics – issues such as commas, apostrophes, (misplaced/dangling) modifiers, the colons, and fragments and run-ons – as well as on rhetorical skills – style (clarity and brevity), strategy, transitions, and organization (sentences in a paragraph and paragraphs in a passage.)


The second section is the 60-minute, 60-question mathematics test with 14 covering pre-algebra, 10 elementary algebra, 9 intermediate algebra, 14 plane geometry, 9 coordinate geometry, and 4 elementary trigonometry questions.[18] Calculators are permitted in this section only. The calculator requirements are stricter than the SAT's in that computer algebra systems are not allowed; however, the ACT permits calculators with paper tapes, that make noise (but must be disabled), or that have power cords with certain "modifications" (i.e., disabling the mentioned features), which the SAT does not allow.[19] Also, this is the only section that has five instead of four answer choices.


The reading section consists of four ten-question passages, from the realm of prose, humanities, social science, and natural science. The student gets 35 minutes to take this test.

Science reasoning

The science reasoning test is a 35-minute, 40-question test. There are seven passages each followed by five to seven questions. There are three Data Representation passages with 5 questions following each passage, 3 Research Summary passages with six questions each, and one Conflicting Viewpoints passage with 7 questions.[20]


The optional writing section, which is always administered at the end of the test, is 30 minutes long. All essays must be in response to a given prompt. The prompts are about a social issue applicable to high school students. The essay can affect the score of the English section only. If a student were to score a 10 out of 12 on the writing, and the student scored an English composite score of 25 then the score would be affected, but would most likely stay the same. If a student were to score poorly on the writing section, then the score would be reduced from 25 to 23 at the most. No particular essay structure is required. Two trained readers assign each essay a score between 1 and 6; a score of 0 is reserved for essays that are blank, off-topic, non-English, not written with no. 2 pencil, or considered illegible after several attempts at reading. The scores are summed to produce a final score from 2 to 12 (or 0). If the two readers' scores differ by more than one point, then a senior third reader decides.

Although the writing section is optional, several schools do require an essay score and will factor it in the admissions decision.[21]


For the original standardization groups, the mean composite score on the ACT was 18, and the standard deviation 6. These statistics vary from year to year for current populations of ACT takers.

The chart below summarizes each section and the average test score based on graduating high school seniors in 2009.[22][23]

Section Number of questions Time (minutes) Average score College Readiness Benchmark Content
English 75 45 20.6 18 usage/mechanics and rhetorical skills
Mathematics 60 60 21.0 22 pre-algebra, elementary algebra, intermediate algebra, coordinate geometry, geometry, and elementary trigonometry
Reading 40 35 21.4 21 reading comprehension
Science 40 35 20.9 24 interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem-solving
Optional Writing Test (not included in composite score) 1 essay prompt 30 7.7 writing skills
Composite 20 2-4 21.1 individual/open response, i.e. extended English response or geometric proofs -- subject varies based on which test version taken. Questions are experimental and therein not included in composite score; results may be used in creating future questions for the ACT for the subject received as the composite section. Not always included in the test (only on certain dates, decided by the ACT).

Highest score

The chart below summarizes how many students achieved a score of 36 on the ACT between the years of 1997 and 2011.[24]

Year Number of students who achieved a 36 Number of students overall  % of students who achieved a 36
2011 705 1,623,112 0.04337
2010 588 1,568,835 0.03748
2009 638 1,480,469 0.04309
2008 428 1,421,941 0.03010
2007 314 1,300,599 0.02414
2006 216 1,206,455 0.01790
2005 193 1,186,251 0.01627
2004 224 1,171,460 0.01912
2003 195 1,175,059 0.01659
2002 134 1,116,082 0.01201
2001 89 1,069,772 0.00832
2000 131 1,065,138 0.01230
1999 85 1,019,053 0.00834
1998 71 995,039 0.00714
1997 74 959,301 0.00771

College Admissions

The ACT Assessment Student Report, at, provides the typical ACT Composite averages for college and universities admission policies. They caution that, "because admission policies vary across colleges, the score ranges should be considered rough guidelines." Following is a list of the average composite scores that typically are accepted at colleges or universities.[25]

  • Highly selective (majority of accepted freshmen in top 10% of high school graduating class): scores 27-31
  • Selective (majority of accepted freshmen in top 25% of high school graduating class): scores 25-27
  • Traditional (majority of accepted freshmen in top 50% of high school graduating class): scores 22-24
  • Liberal (some freshmen from lower half of high school graduating class): scores 18-21
  • Open (all high school graduates accepted, to limit of capacity): scores 17-20

Test availability

The ACT is offered four to six times a year, depending on the state, in the United States, in September, October, December, February, April and June and is always on a Saturday except for those with credible religious obligations. The test can also be taken in other countries, however availability is much less than in the United States.

"Some people believe that it is possible to get a higher score by testing on one national test date than on another. They think that on certain national test dates, easier forms of the ACT are routinely administered, thereby making it possible to get a higher score simply by choosing to test on one of those 'easy' test dates. Likewise, they may think that there is an advantage to testing on one of the less popular national test dates, when fewer students take the ACT. These beliefs are not true. The ACT is designed, administered, and scored in such a way that there is no advantage to testing on one particular date or another." [26]

Candidates may choose either the ACT assessment ($34), or the ACT assessment plus writing ($49.50).

Students with verifiable disabilities, including physical and learning disabilities, are eligible to take the test with accommodations. The standard time increase for students requiring additional time due to learning disabilities is 50%.[27] Originally the score sheet was labeled that additional time was granted due to a learning disability, however this was dropped because it was deemed illegal under the Americans with Disabilities Act and could be seen as an unfair mark of disability.

Scores are sent to the student, his or her high school, and up to four colleges.[28]

Test section durations

Time is a major factor to consider in testing.

The ACT is generally regarded as being composed of somewhat easier questions (versus the SAT), but the time allotted to complete each section increases the overall difficulty (equalizing it to the SAT). The ACT allots:

  • 45 minutes for a 75-question English section
  • 60 minutes for a 60-question Mathematics section
  • 35 minutes for a 40-question Reading Comprehension section
  • 35 minutes for a 40-question Science section

Comparatively, the SAT is structured such that the test taker is allowed at least one minute per question, on generally shorter sections (25 or fewer questions).

Score cumulative percentages and comparison with SAT

Forty-five percent—1,480,469 students—of the 2009 high school graduating class took the ACT.[23][29] The average composite score was a 21.1 in 2009.[23] Of 2009 test-takers, 668,165 (or 45%) were males, 808,097 (or 55%) were females, and 4,207 (or 0.3%) did not report a gender.[23] Nationwide, 638 students who reported that they would graduate in 2009 received the highest ACT composite score of 36.[23]

The following is based on official ACT ACT-SAT concordance chart[30][31] ACT percentiles are calculated on the basis of the percent of test takers scoring the same score or a lower one, not (as is the case for many other assessments) only the percent scoring lower.

SAT (with writing test addition) ACT composite score The percentile of students at or below this score for the ACT (not SAT)
2380–2400 36 99.96%
2290–2370 35 99.7%
2220–2280 34 99%
2140–2210 33 99%
2080–2130 32 98%
2020–2070 31 97%
1980–2010 30 95%
1920–1970 29 93%
1860–1910 28 91%
1800–1850 27 88%
1740–1790 26 85%
1680–1730 25 80%
1620–1670 24 75%
1560–1610 23 69%
1510–1550 22 62%
1450–1500 21 55%
1390–1440 20 48%
1330–1380 19 41%
1270–1320 18 34%
1210–1260 17 28%
1140–1200 16 21%
1060–1130 15 16%
990–1050 14 11%
910–980 13 6%
820–900 12 3%
750–810 11 1%
Subtest Score The percentile of students at or below this score
E 36 99%
E 35 99%
E 34 98%
E 33 97%
E 32 96%
E 31 94%
E 30 93%
E 29 91%
E 28 88%
E 27 85%
E 26 82%
E 25 78%
E 24 73%
E 23 68%
E 22 63%
E 21 57%
E 20 50%
E 19 43%
E 18 38%
E 17 33%
E 16 29%
E 15 24%
E 14 18%
E 13 14%
E 12 11%
E 11 9%
M 36 99%
M 35 99%
M 34 99%
M 33 98%
M 32 97%
M 31 96%
M 30 94%
M 29 93%
M 28 91%
M 27 88%
M 26 84%
M 25 79%
M 24 74%
M 23 67%
M 22 61%
M 21 57%
M 20 52%
M 19 47%
M 18 41%
M 17 34%
M 16 26%
M 15 14%
M 14 6%
M 13 2%
M 12 1%
M 11 1%
R 36 99%
R 35 99%
R 34 99%
R 33 97%
R 32 95%
R 31 93%
R 30 91%
R 29 87%
R 28 85%
R 27 82%
R 26 78%
R 25 75%
R 24 71%
R 23 66%
R 22 60%
R 21 54%
R 20 48%
R 19 42%
R 18 39%
R 17 30%
R 16 25%
R 15 19%
R 14 15%
R 13 10%
R 12 6%
R 11 3%
S 36 99%
S 35 99%
S 34 99%
S 33 99%
S 32 98%
S 31 97%
S 30 96%
S 29 95%
S 28 93%
S 27 91%
S 26 87%
S 25 83%
S 24 77%
S 23 70%
S 22 62%
S 21 56%
S 20 47%
S 19 38%
S 18 34%
S 17 21%
S 16 19%
S 15 15%
S 14 11%
S 13 8%
S 12 5%
S 11 3%



See also


External links

  • ACT Taker's Site
  • ACT Corporate Site

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