(Not so) Big Changes Ahead for ACT this Fall

Those of us in the test prep world have been tracking proposed changes to the ACT – set to release this fall of 2015 – for over a year now. ACT has been somewhat close-handed about these changes, aside from the occasional marketing-driven burst of info around the migration to online ACT testing or the reinvention of the ACT Writing component (otherwise known as the Essay).

It’s important to contextualize these changes amidst the SAT overhaul (announced March 2014). In fact, judging by the copy on ACT’s website, the fall 2015 ACT mini-redesign looks like a direct response to the new SAT. See for yourself:

ACT test modifications website screenshot.

Now, when the ACT says “clients,” it means colleges and universities – not students and their families, despite the fact that this latter group are the ACT’s direct customers (because they pay ACT directly for the test). ACT’s primary concern is to stay relevant in the world of college-readiness assessment in the eyes of major institutions with entire departments (called “admissions”) organized around the task of assessing college readiness in potential students.

Thus, it should be no surprise that students have been the last to discover the changes to the ACT. Most of our ACT students learned about the upcoming changes either from us or from an email to Sept. 12th ACT test-takers sent by ACT just two weeks ago.

So what should ACT students know about these changes?

In addition to the gradual rollout of online testing, there are three important alterations to ALL upcoming ACT test dates that students should be aware of:


The ACT Writing essay, its optional status already disposing it to higher-scoring students only, will now be 40 minutes (versus 30 minutes, as in the past) and will require the student to articulate his or her position on an issue vis-a-vis three other perspectives. What’s interesting about these perspectives is not only that they represent authentic positions individuals in the public sphere might actually hold; they also occupy overlapping positions in the sample “debate space,” often talking past each other in noncompeting terms. The idea is to simulate realistic dialogue on issues of general social import (versus teenager-only import, as in past ACT Writing prompts), the kind of dialogue students are likely to have on a college campus – either in a university seminar or simply at the dining hall.

Here’s a look at the official sample prompt ACT has released on their website:

New ACT Writing Essay prompt - and the best tips and tricks for scoring high!

Furthermore, the new-and-improved ACT Writing prompts will be scored in four (newish) subcategories:

  • Ideas and Analysis (in brief, does the student articulate his or her position clearly and effectively?)
  • Development and Support (does the student provide evidence to back up their claims?)
  • Organization (do the ideas flow logically and naturally?); and
  • Language Use and Conventions (are there any major grammatical or spelling errors to distract the reader?)

Each grader will give the student a score out of 6, to be averaged into a composite score and added to the other grader’s composite score. (Read more about the new scoring rubric here and a sample perfect score essay response here.)

So the new prompts will have nearly the same scoring system, and the Writing component remains separate from the overall Composite score (average of four test scores). But the tactics needed to excel on the ACT Writing have now gotten a little more sophisticated – and exciting!


The ACT Reading also seems to be incorporating the “paired passage” format of SAT and PSAT fame more consistently. We’ve observed the Passage A // Passage B format in both Humanities and Social Studies genres – equipped with question groups that ask about one perspective, the other, or common themes.

The test makers prize this format because it simulates a task college students frequently perform: reading intertextually. Perhaps you’re an English major comparing Shakespeare commentaries, or a biology major navigating multiple perspectives on the evolution of predatory eels. In both scenarios, students need to read critically and make inferences about what one author might say about another.

The best preparation for this passage format is multi-layered independent reading. To this end, we’ve frequently craft reading lists for our students on topics they are passionate about and invested in – whether that be computer games or global politics.

Lean into the reading process independently or with a tutor and you’ll be ready to encounter this activity on test day!


The ACT Science section is mediated by three fundamentally distinct passage formats – each intended to assess a discrete skill associated with science coursework in college or performing research in science careers. Until this fall, it has been relatively straightforward to assess which passage format a given passage fits into, thereby unlocking the “hidden” assessment features of the passage and allowing the student to quickly navigate those features.

However, it seems the ACT has reconsidered the breakdown of passage formats: ACT has released revised percentage breakdowns on their website, indicating they see the formats as more fluid than they had previously indicated in their Real ACT Prep Guide (2nd Ed., released 2011).

What does this change mean for students?

Some students might not have even noticed that these passages were governed by such strict guidelines; but this is standardized testing, and learning the standardizations is a large part of beating the test. If anything, this change means that students will need to learn the new standards governing these ACT Science passages – or develop the hard skills those standardizations are designed to assess.


There are a few additional changes that will minimally affect students taking the ACT. These consist mainly of added subscores to the ACT Score Report, including:

  • a combined English/Language Arts (ELA) subscore;
  • a Science, Engineering, Technology, and Mathematics (STEM) subscore;
  • a Text Complexity Progress subscore; and
  • a Progress Toward Career Readiness subscore.

Here’s a sneak peek at these subscores a sample new ACT Score Report:

New ACT Score Report – this will help facilitate more effective test prep by Portland tutors

In our view, the ACT has done an insufficient job explaining precisely how they calculate these subscores as well as if they actually provide any additional information – let alone any additional predictability of future performance – than the current scores.

That said, they might help tutors and test prep professionals direct students to either ACT or SAT prep, given the rollout of similarly “rich” score reporting by the redesigned SAT in Spring 2016.

The takeaway: both ACT and SAT are in constant cycles of change, both in order to compete with each other and to keep abreast of the latest consensus around career and college readiness. That doesn’t mean they are going away anytime soon, but it does mean that your average high schooler will need to be aware of the ways in which their coursework and/or independent study life could be disposing them toward one test or the other.

The good news? We’re on it.

If you’re interested in discussing either the ACT prep process test or discovering which test is ideal for you, contact us to schedule a free consultation. For more college prep tips and techniques, follow us on Twitter and Facebook, or subscribe to our newsletter.

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