Why You Shouldn't Worry Too Much About the Changes to ACT Math and Science

These days, it may seem like the college admission testing landscape is ever-evolving. Constant updates, scoring changes, and content shifts create unease among students and educational professionals alike. Changes to the ACT official study guide, released in May 2016, recently prompted our friends at Applerouth to warn students that the ACT is currently rolling out subtle, unannounced, but impactful changes to their test. In particular, they stress that math topics have become more advanced and that thorough background science knowledge is needed for a better score. We're here to tell you: there is no need to panic.

The ArborBridge team has spent the last month analyzing the new ACT study guide as well as conducting an in-depth review of all the released exams from the past three years. We have noticed some changes that align with speculation from Applerouth surrounding the Math and Science sections, but these changes seem to mainly affect the highest scorers and have not yet made a significant observed impact on students' official scores. Furthermore, these changes have not necessarily been sudden or instantaneous. 85% of the material from the updated study guide was pulled directly from tests administered in 2014 and 2015; these are tests that have been available to our tutors since their release.


There are two changes we have seen in the ACT Math section.

  1. An increasing number of advanced concepts do in fact appear on the test. These concepts include matrices, weighted probabilities, vectors, etc. However, these questions and topics still only make up a very small number of questions on the exam, making up on average fewer than 5 of the 60 questions. This test is not suddenly the Math 2 SAT Subject Test; students and counselors have very little cause for concern there. It does mean that students who score 32 and higher will want basic exposure to these topics if they hope to improve their score further.
  2. A large portion of these released tests actually contain questions from the old official study guide, just put together in a new patchwork. The change to these recycled questions we have seen is that a number of them now appear earlier in the math section than they did in the old tests. What does this mean? Remember that the ACT generally puts math questions in order of difficulty. So if a question that used to be considered a #40 is now a #30, it indicates that the ACT now considers that question to be easier out of its entire pool of new questions than in the past pool. It's just another indicator that the ACT is adding a few harder problems at the end of the test, which crunches the scale at the bottom and middle. We analyzed this "downgrading" effect and found that on average recycled questions are appearing 3 questions earlier on the test than in the past. The largest "downgrading" is happening from questions #13–36, the mid-level questions. Meaning that questions that use to be considered a difficulty level of 3 on a 1–5 scale are likely to be a level 2.


There is one particular change we have noticed to the ACT Science section.

  1. The ACT has shifted towards six passage sections. This means that each passage accounts for a greater number of questions. And yes, these questions are beginning to stray away from strictly data-driven towards more conceptual content. However, this content is almost entirely based on experimental design and an understanding of . The questions focus on what the experimenters were doing and why they were doing it. ArborBridge's ACT curriculum houses specific lessons designed for these types of questions, at multiple difficulty levels. Students can still skim or skip a bulk of the written passage, addressing only specific parts when necessary.

With regards to the outside science knowledge required for the test, although there has been an increase in science knowledge require for the test, it is frequently integrated into data-focused questions. This allows students to eliminate answer choices and improve their odds of answering correctly, even if they do not have background science knowledge. Furthermore, several science knowledge questions fall lightly into the realm of “common sense” style questions.

After the most recent ACT (June 2016), there was a general consensus from students across the country who reported that they found three of the science passages to be quite straightforward, two to be more complicated, and one to be very difficult. This is well in line with what we would expect from the test.

Why there is no need for counselors and students to panic

First off, your dedicated test prep experts at ArborBridge are on top of this. We just spent all of June and early July reorganizing our entire Math curriculum (changing difficulty levels of lessons, changing prioritization of concepts, adding new practice problems to existing lessons, and begun writing new lessons to cover new concepts). This is the beauty of a modular curriculum: it provides the ability to adjust quickly to test changes. As each test is released, we can continue to monitor and track released exams and adjust as needed.

The released tests may have "just come out" in the form of a new official guide, but we've been tracking other released exams closely for the last two years along with student scores. We began to note these changes and addressed them when we wrote our curriculum last year and this year. Additionally, although the test content may be getting a bit harder, student scores are not changing in a majorly perceptible way, likely due to the fact that the ACT scales its scores for continuity from year to year.

To learn more about ArborBridge's adaptive ACT curriculum, click here.

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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