Is the ACT Math Section Really Harder? A Closer Look at Question Number Shifts and Scaling

Over the past two years, and after the release of the new ACT Official Prep Guide, there has been a great deal of discussion on whether or not the ACT Math section is getting meaningfully harder. Although we have addressed these concerns, we decided to go a step further and dive into the data.

Let’s get the first thing out of the way; the Math section is getting marginally more difficult. But how can we tell?

The ACT Math section is rare in that it deliberately increases in difficulty from the first question (Question #1) to the last question (Question #60). We can use the question number to assign an approximate difficulty level. When the ACT released the new Guide, it contained many of the same Math questions from the old ACT Guide but with a reassigned question number. We conducted a detailed analysis to detect and interpret any question number shift trends.

What did we find?

On average, questions that were considered to be harder are now considered about 2.8 question numbers easier. Practically, this means that a question that was considered #40 in the old book is only considered a #37 or #38 in the new book. This shift was most pronounced in the middle question range. On the hardest questions, we found almost no question number shift, although we did see an increase in the range of concepts, and the introduction of new or rarely tested concepts. OK, so the questions are getting a little bit harder.

But we didn’t stop the analysis there.

The other indicator of a section’s difficulty is how stringent or forgiving the scaling is. As we know, answering the same number of questions right on any given test doesn’t necessarily result in the same scaled (1–36) score. When we compared the scaling from the old and new ACT Guides, we found a meaningful adjustment favoring the new tests. The scaling on the new tests is more forgiving to students; a student can answer one more question wrong and still receive the same scaled score.


Figure 1: This graph compares the Raw Score (number of questions correct) with the Scaled Score from 1–36. The blue dots show the average scaled score from the new ACT Guide tests, and the yellow dots show the average scaled scoring from the old ACT Guide tests. At almost every point, the new ACT Guide scaling is higher than the old ACT Guide scaling.

This is most pronounced at the higher end of the scale. Middle- and high-scoring students will receive the most benefit from the favorable curve. For example, on the old ACT Guide test, a student who answered 54 questions correctly would score an average of 31. On the new ACT Guide tests, a student needs to only answer 50 questions correctly to average 31.

Taken together, we can confidently state that, although the questions are getting slightly more difficult, the favorable scaling negates any increased difficulty. For students who are concerned about the increasing difficulty of the test, we recommend a prep program that addresses the targeted, specific needs of each student. At ArborBridge, our modular curriculum allows our team to almost instantly adjust to any test changes or concepts, allowing students to focus their prep time most efficiently.


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Lisa McManus

About Lisa McManus

Lisa graduated from the Columbia School of Public Health where she finished a degree in sociomedical sciences after studying biology as an undergrad at Georgetown. At both universities, she completed theses based on education and pedagogy, conducting original research and teaching in low-income middle schools. After graduation, Lisa developed targeted curricula for small after-school programs.

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