ACT Time Changes

In a move that makes the ACT somewhat less accommodating to students with accommodations, ACT has changed its extra time policy . Through June 2017, students taking the ACT with writing had six hours to complete the four sections that comprise the composite score (English, Math, Reading, and Science) and the essay. Students will now have five hours for the test sections and a  separate  hour for the writing.

 Why does this matter? 

Historically, many students elected to use more of the time for the four sections that make up the composite score and less time for the writing. Because the writing mattered less to some students (and some colleges), they appropriated time from the essay to maximize the sections that “really” mattered. Students could easily borrow even 20 minutes of additional multiple choice and break time and still do passably well on the writing. No longer. Keeping the 60 minutes of writing time discrete from the 300 minutes of multiple choice should appreciably alter how students with extended time should plan to test.

Don’t Brake on the Breaks 

Some students testing in September may already be thinking “it’s fine, I’ll just plow through a 5-hour test at 8 am on a Saturday morning without any breaks.” It’s possible that could work out. Possible but unlikely. All of us will oscillate from periods of intense focus to periods of daydreaming, from periods of mental work to periods of mental rest. Very few of us can conjure a 5-hour block of energetic focus at will, and I suspect that is especially true, as a group, for students requiring extended time.

Taking breaks can be critical to investing in your focus and managing decision-making fatigue. Moving around will help get your blood pumping, help you be present, and reduce your eye strain by changing and broadening your gaze. Further, our brains use about 20% of the energy in our bodies and up to 50% of the available sugars. As brains are important to taking the ACT, we want to be sure it has the fuel that it needs. A substantial snack between the Math and Reading will eliminate a possible distraction – hunger – and ensure that your blood sugar levels are sufficient to get through the test. And snacks require breaks.

Invest in Reading and Science 

To the extent possible, you’ll want to avoid borrowing time from the Reading and Science sections. On these sections, the answers are almost always right on the page, provided you have enough time to find them. You don’t want to miss easy questions on the last Science passage because you were fascinated by a challenging but disposable math question. Set a target for getting through the English, and set clear priorities as you approach the most difficult Math. Reading and Science comprise half of your composite score, and neither requires specialized outside knowledge: be sure to save at least half your time for them.

 Open Questions 

Perhaps it’s only true test geeks who would wish to be a fly on the wall during an ACT statistician meeting, but this seemingly small policy change raises some fun questions to think about: how might extended time students average scores shift from last year to this? Are more schools indifferent to the essay in light of the SAT making it optional? Will fewer extended time students opt for the essay? Were extended time students doing too well on average? The speculation can be fun, but ultimately, we can only focus on the practical details we can control. So, if you are a student taking the ACT, plan accordingly. If you are a tutor or test-prep company, be sure to adjust your practice tests so you do not train your students to expect “extra” extra time they will not have. Have a clear time budget and stick to it. As always,  keep cool on timing.