ACT Change Will Allow Students to Retake Individual Sections

Starting next September, high schoolers won’t need to repeat the entire ACT exam to improve their score.

The campus of Columbia University in New York. Beginning next year, high school students will be able to retake specific sections of the ACT during the college admissions process.
The campus of Columbia University in New York. Beginning next year, high school students will be able to retake specific sections of the ACT during the college admissions process.CreditCreditTony Cenicola/The New York Times


Officials at ACT, which makes the exam, said on Tuesday that starting next September, students would be able to retake specific sections rather than the entire test, which lasts about three hours.

The change would allow students to avoid getting a worse grade on a section they had scored well on earlier. Although a growing number of colleges and universities have made test scores an optional part of college applications, many high schoolers feel pressure to score highly on the ACT and SAT exams.

There are five subsections on the ACT — reading, math, science, English and writing, which is optional — graded on a scale of 1 to 36. Scores on the four required sections are averaged into a composite score. But a student’s highest composite score may not necessarily include the highest subscores if they were achieved on a test with a lower composite score.

Starting in September, students will get a new “superscore” that combines their highest scores on the subsections from the different times they took the test. Currently, if students who have taken the test more than once want colleges to see their best subscores, they have to send in multiple test results.

“They might think, ‘Why do I have to sit through and take all these tests again if I only need to improve my math score?” Ed Colby, an ACT spokesman, said. “We’re trying to save them time. We’re trying to save them money.”

It is not clear whether colleges would evaluate applicants with the same test score differently if one acquired the score in a single sitting and one had a superscore. Some colleges already do their own superscoring, combining a student’s highest section scores across multiple test dates. But until now, the ACT had not provided an official superscore.

Students can take the test up to 12 times, though most take it only once or twice. According to the ACT, research shows that students who take the test more than once have slightly higher first-year college grades than those who take the test a single time. The organization’s theory is that those students are motivated to succeed, which translates into better academic performance.

Taking the whole test costs $52 without the optional writing section, and $68 with it. ACT officials said taking an individual section would be cheaper, but they had not yet decided on a price.

If the change encourages more students to retake portions of the exam, it may increase revenue for the organization.

Students will also be given the option to take the ACT online, rather than with paper and pencil, on days when it is administered nationwide. The test is now given online only at international test centers and in school districts that administer the test during the school day.

Online results will be available within two business days, rather than the two to eight weeks it takes to get results from the paper-and-pencil tests.

“It’s all about what works best for them individually,” Mr. Colby said.

The changes come amid rising doubts about the value of standardized testing and competition for market share between the two dominant test makers, ACT and the College Board, which administers the SAT. About 1.9 million students a year take the ACT, and about 2.1 million take the SAT.

Standardized tests have been criticized for score differences among groups of students that correlate with race, family income and education levels of parents. White and Asian-American students perform better than other groups, as do students from higher-income families with educated parents.

But after criticism from parents and educators, the College Board recently withdrew its plan to measure student disadvantage with a single number on the SAT, which became known as the adversity score.