The Ultimate Guide to ACT Test Statistics

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By: Rachael Holtz on February 25, 2010

You may know that ACT (original abbreviation for American College Testing) is an alternative to the SAT test. You may also know that you have an option of taking both the ACT and the SAT as means to measure your high school achievements and as tools to get into college. But how much more do you know about the ACT? This article may prove to be your ultimate guide to ACT test statistics, with information about the test, the test scores and how those scores are interpreted.

Everett Franklin Lindquist administered ACT for the first time in 1959 as competition against the SAT. Historically, the ACT consisted of four tests, including math, reading, English and science reasoning. An optional writing test was added to the ACT in February 2005, and the SAT offered the same option in March that year.

As of 2007, all four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. now accept the ACT as well as the SAT. The SAT historically had dominated schools on both East and West coasts, while the ACT dominated in Illinois and Colorado (both states incorporated the ACT as a mandatory test in 2001). While students, in the past, often were denied acceptance at various schools for taking the ACT rather than the SAT, colleges have broadened their acceptance in efforts to gain more students across a broader geographic region.

SAT takers dropped by nearly 10,000 students in 2007, while the ACT test increased by more than 20,000 students. And, while SAT national average scores dropped, ACT scores rose significantly (see test takers, state by state in 2007). It is unknown whether marketing, acceptance or changes in tests are to blame for the changes in these numbers.

Subject test scores in all four sections of ACT range from 1 to 36. The English, mathematics, and reading tests also have subscores that range from 1 to 18. The composite score equals the average of all four tests. Students who take the writing test receive a writing score that ranges from 2 to 12, a “combined English/writing score,” based upon the writing and English scores, ranges from 1 to 36 and one to four comments on the essay from the essay scorers. The writing score does not affect the composite score. The test may include an experimental section that may be a short version of any of the four major sections.

On the ACT, each question correctly answered is worth one raw point. Unlike the SAT, there is no penalty for marking incorrect answers on the multiple-choice part of the test. Although the ACT often is considered easier than the SAT, the time allotted to take the ACT is shorter. The SAT is structured so that the test taker has about one minute to answer each question; the ACT allots, for instance, only 45 minutes for a 75-question English test. The highest possible ACT score is 36, compared to the SAT 1600.

The main difference between the SAT and the ACT is that the latter test measures the student’s knowledge learned in high school, whereas the SAT tries to determine “innate” abilities. But, the difficulty in the ACT comes from its questions that require more specific knowledge of any given subject. The ACT requires knowledge, the SAT requires test-taking skills.

According to ACT, a record 1.3 million high school seniors of the 2007 graduating class took the ACT test and earned an average composite score of 21.2 on the college admission and placement exam, up from 20.8 in 2003 and from 21.1 in 2006. Like the SAT, the ACT also employs a percentile based upon the scores. For instance, if you score a 24 on your ACT composite score, this score implies that your percentile score is 75, or that you scored better than 75 percent of the other students who took the ACT test that same year. These percentiles are broken down by test as well as pulled together in a composite.

While many critics have accused the SAT designers of cultural bias toward the white and wealthy with their questions and the cost of the test, the ACT — while still costly — has been regarded as the underdog’s hero. In fact, ACT provided $6 million worth of free exams in 2007 and budgeted $8 million in free exams for the fiscal year ending in August 2008. Additionally, ACT places an emphasis on serving students with disabilities.

But, in 2007, the Des Moines Sunday Register uncovered salaries paid to the ACT ’s non-profit board of directors only to learn that those salaries — about $520,000 annually — surpassed the compensation of about 98 percent of nonprofit boards across the U.S. If the IRS deems that a nonprofit is paying an amount in excess of reasonable compensation, the IRS may impose intermediate sanctions on both the individual receiving that salary and the organizational managers who approved it.

Note that it is possible to achieve a perfect score on the ACT, while this is a very rare occurrence for the SAT. Often, those higher scores occur after the student takes the test for the second time. The odds of a higher score with the second test should increase, simply because the test and the testing environment becomes more familiar.

To learn more about ACT scores and percentiles, what they mean, how colleges use them, we’ve prepared a list of links for your convenience. All the links listed below are current, and include some of the latest test scores as well as some historic numbers. This list is categorized by scores and percentiles, and each link is listed alphabetically within those categories.


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About Nathan and Joanna Cornett

We are a from San Diego California, currently on a mission trip in Guatemala. Nathan has worked as a youth pastor, teen center director, college advisor, and now missionary. Joanna has worked at LaBahn's Landscape for 7 years in the field, sales, and as the Vice President, she started the Hispanic ministry at Foothills Church, and has worked in youth ministry, she is now working as a missionary. We are both passionate about youth, worship, and missions.

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