What is the ACT?

The ACT is this “other” college admissions exam. When it was first introduced in 1959, it ACT was an abbreviation for American College Test. Today, the acronym stands for nothing. The ACT is comprised of four distinct tests: English, Math, Reading, and Science. The test has long claimed to be a achievement test (testing what is taught in school) instead of an aptitude test (which is how the SAT was originally billed).    

The ACT is a highly speeded test and its current format the ACT is as follows: 

  Section Time (minutes) Questions Question Time (seconds)
English 45 75 36
Mathematics 60 60 60
Reading 35 31 68
Science 35 36 58
Essay (optional) 40 1  

Despite the differences that test makers claimed, most aspects of the ACT and SAT are almost identical, including their acceptability among colleges. In the past, some colleges would only accept or would prefer either the SAT or the ACT but that is no longer the case. If a college requires a test, and many do not, the college will accept either the SAT or ACT. 

What does the ACT claim to measure?

According to the test publisher, the ACT contains four multiple-choice tests and an optional writing test that are “designed to measure skills that are most important for success in postsecondary education and that are acquired in secondary education.”

How well the ACT actually measures what it claims to measure is a matter of some debate as is how important those topics are for “success” in post secondary education. Most validity studies show that the ACT only provides a small amount of additional information in determining who will be successful in the first year of college and almost no information about who will succeed in graduating college or beyond. 

Does the ACT accurately predict success?

Research for the test publisher shows that the ACT only provides a slight boost in predicting first year GPA. Further, according to research done by the tests’ publishers, high school grades on their own are consistently better predictors of college performance than either the ACT or the SAT. The combination of test and grades only add marginal increases to predictions of first year performance. 

Correlation to FYGPA
(test alone)
0.45 0.51
Correlation to FYGPA
(HGPA alone)
0.53 0.53
Correlation to FUGPA
(HGPA + test)
.56 .61

More from FairTest about validity: 2007 SAT-I, Comparing SAT-I ACT and SAT IIs


Has the ACT Changed?  

The ACT has undergone many minor revisions and several major revisions since its creation. The biggest change occured in 1989 with the introduction of what was marketed as the “enhanced ACT.” There have also been at many minor to the exam’s content, format, and scoring. 

What impact does the ACT have on educational equity?

The ACT consistently under-predicts the performance of females in college and over-predicts the performance of males. Although females earn higher grades in high school and college. Analyses of ACT gender bias cite several causes including the test’s emphasis on speed over sustained reasoning and its multiple-choice format. Mathematics tests in other countries that require solutions to long problems appeared unbiased with respect to gender.

African American, Latino, new Asian immigrant and many other minority test-takers score significantly lower than white students. Rigid use of the ACT for admissions will produce freshman classes with very few minorities and with no appreciable gain in academic quality. The ACT are very effective at eliminating academically promising low-income and under-represented minority students who apply with strong academic records but relatively low ACT scores. Colleges that have made the ACT optional report that their applicant pools are more diverse and that there has been no drop off in academic quality.

How is the ACT is misused?

Several states impose ACT minimum score requirements on students hoping to qualify for taxpayer-funded scholarships. Using cut-off scores for such high-stakes decisions is a clear violation of not only the test-makers’ guidelines but also the joint standards for educational testing provided by the leading education (AERA), psychology (APA), and measurement (NCME) associations. This practice disproportionately impacts minority students who as a group tend to score lower than white students on the ACT. The result is these students lose out on millions of dollars in financial assistance.

Gifted and Talented Programs:
Many special programs for the “gifted and talented,” such as the Johns Hopkins Center for the Advancement of Academically Talented Youth, use the ACT or similar tests to select participants. Not surprisingly, girls and minorities are often underrepresented in these accelerated programs.


Is the ACT coachable?

While there is still debate over how much test prep can boost students’ scores, ACT has shifted from the historic claim that the ACT is not “coachable” and now partners with for-profit test preparation company Kaplan and sells test preparation teacher training to school districts. Regardless of how much coaching can increase SAT results on average, it can substantially enhance some students’ scores, thus further tilting the college admissions playing field.

Further Reading