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Another Look at the ACT Updates

Online testing

ACT will make online testing available to students on national test dates starting in September 2020. Paper-and-pencil tests will not be going away, and Compass expects there to be serious shortages in online seats. Despite the name, online tests are taken on school-controlled computers in special classrooms and computer labs. It will be an intriguing option, but should not drive testing decisions. Test content and length will not change. The test will not be computer adaptive (a test-type familiar to those of you who took the GRE or GMAT in recent years). We’ll be talking more about it as it comes into focus.

Superscore reporting

Superscore reporting is something of a marketing gimmick to present ACT as superscore friendly (it has traditionally been seen as superscore unfriendly). Students will be able to send colleges a report that includes just their best section results (superscore). While this adds convenience, it doesn’t alter the superscores that colleges themselves already calculate. It is only applicable at colleges that choose to superscore, so it doesn’t change the net result for students. Some colleges that superscore may still request traditional reports, because their IT systems will need to be updated or they may prefer to receive full test dates. ACT’s support of superscoring may encourage more colleges to adopt this option, but the superscore report itself is not a critical change.

Section retesting

After students take a full ACT, they will be able to choose to retake individual sections on future test dates starting in September 2020. Section retesting must be done online. A student, for example, could decide to only retake Reading and Science. This seems intuitively appealing. Compass believes that this reaction is overly optimistic and recommends students not yet make tutoring or testing decisions based on section retesting.

Section retesting is a radical proposal that does not yet have widespread support. Among our concerns:

  1. Section retesting will not be available until at least September 2020. Online testing will not be available at national test dates until September 2020. For your class of 2021 students, then, the option would only be available late in their testing timelines. It would also require a shift to online testing after previously doing paper-and-pencil testing.
  2. There is legitimate concern that the logistics around administration and acceptance of section retests will delay or kill off this option. Students should be wary of counting on the availability of section retesting.
  3. Compass’s experience with testing is that students are not good at predicting when and where gains will be achieved across the 4 ACT sections. They often fixate on their weakest score. A superscore gain, though, can come from any section — unless a student already has a 36 on a section. Taking advantage of section retesting lowers, in most cases, students’ chances of raising their superscores. Except in special cases, Compass expects to discourage section retesting.
  4. Compass’s skepticism also comes from the fact that colleges have not weighed in. ACT is trying to assure colleges that section retest scores are comparable to full-exam retest scores. This view has not yet been accepted by colleges and, to our knowledge, not a single college has yet said that they will superscore with incomplete tests. Colleges tend to be conservative and may choose to wait at least an admission cycle. The University of California system is among the colleges that will only look at scores from complete test dates. Without a significant policy change, a section retest will be a wasted retest.
  5. Compass is also concerned about the ability of testing centers to provide sufficient capacity for online testing. Section retesting compounds the logistical problems. Students wanting to do online testing or section retesting next fall may find themselves unable to do so.
  6. ACT has introduced section retesting and superscore reporting as marketing techniques to encourage more superscoring and more retesting. At present, more than twice as many top colleges reject superscoring of the ACT as reject superscoring of the SAT. While it will be nice if this gap closes, students should not be making plans under the assumption that it will close in time for the class of 2021.
  7. If justifying a decision on SAT versus ACT based on section retesting, students should also consider that every other ACT test-taker will have the same option. We may see score inflation — or at least enough of a threat of score inflation — that colleges will take a wait-and-see approach.

The ACT remains an excellent option for many students, and this set of announcements does not change that. Compass sees a 50/50 split between ACT and SAT preparation and will continue to recommend test choice based on individual circumstances and strengths.

In summary for section retesting:

  • None of this matters at all to your class of 2020 students.
  • Section retesting is not a done deal.
  • Section retesting becomes available late in the game for the class of 2021.
  • Section retesting requires a switch to online testing late in the process.
  • Section retesting relies on colleges (a) superscoring and (b) updating superscoring policies to allow for section retesting.
  • Section retesting will encounter logistical problems during its rollout, which will come at a critical time in the application process for the class of 2021.
  • Section retesting will actually reduce, for most students, their odds of achieving a higher superscore.
  • Potential gains from section retesting will be available to all students, so may not provide a net advantage.
  • Section retesting is an interesting and, potentially, beneficial concept. At present, it should be treated with skepticism.
Art Sawyer

About Art Sawyer

Art graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, where he was the top-ranked liberal arts student in his class. Art pioneered the one-on-one approach to test prep in California in 1989 and co-founded Compass Education Group in 2004 in order to bring the best ideas and tutors into students' homes and computers. Although he has attained perfect scores on all flavors of the SAT and ACT, he is routinely beaten in backgammon.

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