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Major Changes at the ACT: Retaking Individual Sections, Online Testing, and Superscoring

Originally published October 8, 2019

NOTE! ACT Changes have been postponed since this blog was posted.

The ACT has just announced that beginning in September 2020, students will have more options about how they take the ACT exam. These include three fairly important changes:

1.       Students will be able to retake specific sections of the exam, rather than sitting for the exam in its entirety on retake. 

2.       Students will be able to take a computer-based test on national test dates with a two-day turn-around on scores.

3.       The ACT will generate official super-score reports. 

We’re busy thinking through what’s behind these changes, important open questions, and what these policies mean for our students and for college-bound students as a whole. 

Motivations Behind the ACT’s Retake and Computer-Based Testing Changes

 According to the ACT, these changes increase the options available to students without sacrificing their data validity. They have released a study indicating that section-specific retakes reflect student performance equally as well as requiring the student to retake the entire test – a point crucial to how the new scores will be evaluated. In addition, they have recently changed their viewpoint on super-scoring, arguing that such super-scores are a more accurate measure predictive of first-year college performance. 

Providing colleges with accurate data and providing students with more choices are important and commendable aims. At the same time, it’s hard to ignore the economic advantages that the policy change provides for the ACT.  Following the ACT’s capture of majority market share roughly a decade ago, the SAT rewrote its entire test for 2016. Now that the SAT is administering the most college entrance exams, the ACT is trying to remain competitive.

Removing the fear that students will jeopardize one section of the test, say a stellar reading score, is likely to at least marginally increase the number of students who purchase retests. In addition, phasing in computer testing dramatically reduces overhead, from proctor labor and test security, to printing, transportation, and data fidelity. If they’re able to pull it off, beating the SAT to computer testing is a significant competitive advantage. According to Katy Dunn, Educational Counselor at PrepMatters, the recently announced partnership between the Coalition App and the SAT to send score reports from a single hub may have added pressure for the ACT to shake things up and remain competitive. 

How Will These ACT Changes Be Administered?

 While the ACT’s announcement answers a few questions, many more have appeared in its wake. It’s clear that a student can only retest after having taken a full official test. Will a student be able to use the ACT’s cancellation request form, though, while retesting each section individually? Similarly, whether a student will be able to cancel test scores taken electronically remains unclear.  

More broadly, setting up the infrastructure for students to take a computer-based test at every testing center across the U.S. is a major undertaking. While those test centers in states currently using ACT online testing will likely be among the early testing centers, the number and location of testing centers offering section-specific retakes will be an interesting and important component of the ACT’s rollout of this ambitious plan. 

ACT Policy Change and Retesting Strategies

 The extent to which will change students’ strategy for test prep is not yet obvious. In the face of uncertainty, the availability of section-specific retakes and about how the scores will be evaluated, students may be rightly wary to significantly change their approach. It will likely remain prudent for students to feel comfortable and confident in their practice scores before taking a first official test. 

The impact on individual sections is also likely to vary a good bit. Testing on a computer seems a clear advantage on the writing portion, on which students may be able to use the speed and flexibility of a word processor. The math section, however, with its geometry figures and data tables, may be far trickier to complete on a computer. While retesting for math only may help some students, we may find students prepping most heavily for math before their first official test. Depending on the scope of the ACT’s rollout, these strategic test prep considerations may not come into full relevance until 2021. 

Impacts of the ACT Retake Policy Change 

Just as under-resourced students are less able to afford test prep support, they also retake the test far less frequently. The ACT’s own data suggests that while 60% of students from high-income families (greater than $60,000 a year) retest, only 40% of students from low-income families (less than $36,000) do so. This is no small impact, given that those students who took multiple ACTs finished with a score, on average, a full 2.9 points higher than those who took the test only once. To offset some of this burden, the ACT currently allows qualifying students fee waivers for two test administrations. It’s not yet clear how the fee waiver will work in conjunction with single-section retakes. Absent significant efforts at encouraging low-income students to retest, it seems likely that greater flexibility and convenience in retesting will advantage well-resourced students. Relatedly, students who live in rural areas may face an additional burden as testing shifts to computer-based testing centers. The expense and potential stress of travel are likely to impact not only student access to retesting, but also their performance. As usual, the devil is likely to be in the details. 

On the other hand, section-specific retesting is likely to be a boon to students with learning and performance challenges. There is a cruel irony to offering students with ADHD or anxiety an extended-time accommodation: the difficulty of managing the stress of one’s impulsivity or brain chemistry must be endured even longer. Section-specific testing should offer some relief to these students, who can improve a single section without needing to endure a nearly 6-hour testing ordeal. Further, if students have domain-specific challenges, due to language disorders, for example, they will be able to focus solely on doing their absolute best in a challenged area, without needing to confront the endurance or cognitive load that a full test requires. 

International students may also benefit from the ACT’s increased options, as colleges may allow them to take the English or Reading portions of the ACT to satisfy English language competency usually measured by the TOEFL or IELTS exams. 

While the ACT has clearly been in frequent contact with colleges about score choice, it remains to be seen what kind of reporting colleges may require, or what distinctions they may make, in the face of the ACT’s policy change. As a general rule, it helps colleges to report the student data in the most generous light: they want their programs to appear competitive and valuable when they are seen, for example, in U.S. News rankings.  “Some systems, such as UVA’s, already allow admissions department members to see the only an applicant’s highest ACT score,” says Jeff Knox, Director of Educational Planning at PrepMatters. “For these schools, the change may matter little, beyond any upward pressure the policy has on student performance generally. For other schools, we would hope that they will be as transparent about how they treat individual section retakes and ACT super-scores as they are with other admissions criteria, such as score choice, the writing requirement, or subject tests.”  

The choices the ACT makes in implementing the computer-based and section-specific retesting changes, and they ways that college respond to them in the next 18 months or so, will dramatically affect the impact of the policy on who gets what score, and, marginally, on who gets in where.  

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