Counselors: Your Top 10 Questions About ACT Changes—Answered

ACT Announces 3 Major Changes

Today, ACT announced changes that will dramatically affect test-takers beginning in September 2020:

  • U.S. students will be able to retake individual sections rather than the test as a whole. These section retests will be computer-based only.
  • U.S. students will be able to choose between paper and computer-based testing. Scores from computer tests will be available within a few days of the test, while paper-based scores will still take a few weeks.
  • All students—both domestic and international—will have the option for ACT to send a formal composite superscore of their best section scores, in addition to scores from all test dates.

Here we answer the most common questions you might have about counseling students and their parents through these changes.

1. How will colleges react?

Colleges are the only thing that matters. Colleges could just say, “We don’t care what ACT does. We still only care about full tests with all scores.” We saw it with the essay section: ACT made it optional, but at first many colleges still required it and pretty much all students took it. Colleges haven’t responded officially yet to the new policy and may even change their views over time. We do know that they will be able to see on score reports which section scores come from section retesting vs. from a full exam, but we don't know if section retests will be viewed as equally legitimate. Because of this uncertainty, at ArborBridge we think it’s best right now to counsel students to stay the course and act like this isn’t happening. It’s best to keep tracking the story and reactions, and then change plans accordingly.

2. Will this hurt or benefit my students?

If colleges embrace it, it probably will benefit students. Based on anecdotal evidence, we’ve found that the ability to focus on only a few sections can reduce student anxiety and may boost student scores. The wild card is the computer-based requirement (student can only retake a single section if they take the section on a computer). Many students struggle with the transition from paper to computer, and the ACT hasn’t released enough online practice yet to give students the chance to perfect their computer approach. So, scores may actually go down on a retest. The one element that won’t improve: planning stress. Students will have tons of questions about crafting their test plan: Should I retake a section? Which sections? Which sections should I prioritize on a retake? When do I retake them? How many retakes should I plan for? Will I get to choose the order of section retakes if I do more than one in a given day? (ACT has said they are interested in allowing this choice, but it is not yet confirmed.) Students and parents are going to need a lot more help managing the stress of these options and getting a plan in place.

3. How does this change my students’ timelines and prep plans?

For now don’t change anything. Wait to see what colleges say. Wait to see where the test is offered. We don’t know where the computer-testing and section retakes will be offered (ACT had trouble securing test sites when it rolled out computer testing abroad and the U.S. market is significantly bigger). Once we know more specifics, then it’s time to talk about changing prep plans. 

In the future, we do expect that this change will shift a student’s plans slightly. We expect we will still suggest a student have 1-2 full-length exams completed by end of spring semester. The big change will come in advising students to block out time for a few section retakes in June, July, September, October, and even December now that computer-scores and section-retake scores will be available within a few days for application deadlines.

Additionally, should you have any students who started testing early on in their high school careers, ACT will superscore section scores going back as early as September 2016 once such superscoring begins in September 2020. And if you have students who are only taking the ACT on a school day via state or district testing, they too will have access to section retesting, though ACT has yet to release any details on timeline or specific availability for state/district section retesting.

4. What do I tell my seniors?

“Lucky for you, you don’t have to worry about all of this. The changes won’t go into effect until you are already settled into your college dorm.”

5. What do I tell my juniors?

“Juniors will have the opportunity to take advantage of these new policies in the fall of senior year—if colleges accept the changes. There’s a lot we don’t know, especially whether this will be available in your location and how smooth the rollout will be at ACT. For now, stay the course. Keep with your usual timeline and advice. We will make adjustments later in the spring when we know exactly what to expect in the fall.”

6. What do I tell my sophomores (and younger) students?

“Don’t worry about this yet. It’s still too early in your test journey to be strategizing about retakes. We also know far too little about what ACT and colleges will actually do with these changes. We are going to see how it affects current juniors (the first class it will affect) before making any radical changes to your plans. So, play it safe for now and make decisions once the data is in and you are at a point where it matters.”

7. What do I tell my international students?

“Current international juniors will only have access to superscoring, but sophomores and younger students will have access to section retesting as well. ACT will offer section retesting internationally beginning in September 2021. For students who can travel and feel they need to do a section retake sooner than then, it may be worth looking at traveling to the U.S. for retakes. But it’s best not to plan on that option at this point as it’s not yet clear what sites will be available in the U.S. or whether a student’s score will increase enough on a section retake to be worth that kind of investment and planning.”

8. How does this affect students with accommodations?

ACT has spoken only about the computer-based change and its effect on students with learning disabilities. ACT will strive to provide accommodations on the computer-based test and is currently able to provide testing accommodations on the computer-based test for students with 1.5x extended time who take the test in a single sitting. If a student takes the test over multiple days or has 2x extended time, they will take the test on paper at their home school. ACT has not released specific information about section retesting for students with disabilities, but we are almost certain students will have this option. We expect that students with accommodations that the computer test can handle will be required to retake their sections on a computer. But students with other accommodations (like 2x time) may get the option of a paper test for retaking sections.

9. Should my students who are prepping for SAT switch to ACT?

Many parents and students might ask you if the opportunity to retest specific sections means prepping for the ACT is better than prepping for SAT. Right now, we recommend that students stick with the test they score better on—just as we always have. It’s not clear yet how much section retesting will help a student improve their scores, and there’s the added wild card of computer testing if you try a section retest. Plus we don’t yet know test locations or availability. It’s not worth switching tests yet with no clear upside.

10. What does this tell us about the future of college admissions testing?

First off, it means universal, computer-based testing is coming soon, and everyone needs to prepare. And we’re not just talking about for the select ACT kids who choose it or retake sections. ACT is playing a subtle switch here: they are easing American families into the idea of computer-based testing by offering a perk (section retakes) with a transition that has scared many students (computer-only testing). Hiding veggies in the dessert is a great way to get people comfortable with something they don’t like. It will also help ACT iron out the operational kinks of finding enough test sites on a small scale first. But rest assured—this is just the first phase as the ACT moves to a computer-only test in the next few years. And SAT is likely to follow suit. Either way, ArborBridge has been at the forefront of ACT computer testing, and we’ve already adapted to what lies ahead.

Second, we're entering a new phase of evolution. SAT had the first phase a few years ago with its content redesign. Now ACT is making major moves to reimagine the testing experience and score reporting. The ACT is showing us that nothing is sacred anymore. We need to be prepared for both the ACT and SAT to reinvent the foundational tenets of the system (something they have been loathe to do up until now). Why all this radical evolution? Test optional and market forces have them very concerned, and they are now in a place where radical changes—unthinkable only a few years ago—may be their best option for survival.

Last updated October 24.

This is only the beginning of the test's evolution.

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Megan Stubbendeck

About Megan Stubbendeck

Dr. Megan Stubbendeck is an eight-year veteran of the test prep industry with ten years of teaching experience. She earned her PhD in History from the University of Virginia, where she taught for three years in the History Department. She has been part of the test prep industry since 2007 and has earned perfect scores on the SAT, ACT, GRE, and multiple AP exams. As the CEO of ArborBridge, Megan oversees all aspects of ArborBridge operations and helped to create our innovative curriculum.

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