Education Week, Oct. 8, 2019 By Catherine Gewertz
Starting next fall, some students who take the ACT will have a new option as they try to improve their scores: They’ll be allowed to retake individual sections of the college-entrance exam, instead of having to sit for the entire test again.
The new option, which ACT Inc. announced Tuesday, will be available only to students who take the test in national testing centers on Saturdays, starting in September 2020. ACT administers 62 percent of its exams this way. Students or their families pay for the exam.
The rest of the students who take the ACT take it for free during the school day, as part of a contract their districts or states signed with ACT. Mary Michael Pontzer, ACT’s vice president of products, said the company is discussing the option of individual-section retakes with its contract clients, but hasn’t yet decided to extend that option to students in the school-day program.
The ACT, which costs $52, has four required sections: English, math, reading, and science. Students may also opt for a fifth section, in writing, for an additional $16. Pricing for individual section retakes hasn’t been set yet, but Pontzer said it will cost less than retaking the entire test.
The ACT announced other changes for next fall as well. One will expand computer-based ACT exams, which are already an option used by a small slice of school-day sites, to some Saturday testing centers.
At a yet-to-be-decided roster of centers, students will be able to choose between digital or paper-and-pencil versions of the ACT. The online version provides results in a couple of days, compared to at least two weeks for the paper-and-pencil version, ACT officials said. The company will decide how far to expand online testing at national test sites once it can gauge students’ interest in that option, Pontzer said.
Also next fall, students who take the ACT more than once will be able to send colleges a “superscore” in their score reports. Some colleges already do this on their own: When students send scores from two or more test sittings, they calculate a score that shows a student’s best scores for each subject, across all dates. ACT will now do those calculations automatically and include them in students’ score reports.
Akil Bello, who tracked changes to the ACT and SAT for years as an executive at Princeton Review, and is now a consultant on testing issues for K-12 and colleges, commended ACT on its decision to provide superscores, noting that the company had spent years discouraging colleges from calculating them.
Pontzer of the ACT said that the company had decided to make the three changes to offer more choice to students and allow them to “put their best foot forward” when applying to college and for scholarships. She noted, for instance, that new ACT research shows that superscores are better predictors of college course success than traditional scoring methods.
But there could be competitive reasons behind ACT’s announcement as well. The company’s new options and services are not available on the rival SAT, which is owned by the College Board.
Battle for Market Dominance
ACT and the College Board have been battling for years over dominance in the college-admission-testing market. The ACT used to be the most popular test, but College Board has wrested back that title in the last few years, topping 2.1 million test-takers in the graduating class of 2018, compared to the ACT’s 1.9 million.
The College Board doesn’t provide superscores, or allow students to retake individual sections of the SAT. It does offer a digital version of the SAT, but only in a few places. In the 2018-19 school year, the digital SAT was offered during the school day at only 100 schools, and wasn’t available for the national weekend testing program, said company spokesman Zachary Goldberg.
ACT’s new options illustrate how “competition has forced the ACT and the College Board to find ways to make the test friendlier for students,” Bello said.
Allowing students to retake individual sections of the ACT is a good option to offer students, he said. But it increases the complexity of Saturday test administration for ACT, since it demands new logistics training for personnel about how to manage groups of students taking different portions of the test— or the entire test—at one site at the same time.
It also could increase the advantage wealthy students have on the test, Bello said, since they can work individually or in small groups with paid tutors to prepare for each retake.
Jayne Caflin Fonash, the president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said ACT’s revised retake option could be good for students, but worries that it could add stress to the already-stressful process of college application.
“If a student thinks it might make a difference by adding one point to her score on one section, which it most likely would not, I’d hate to see her go through the stress of retaking it,” said Fonash, who worked as a high school counselor for 24 years. “It’s going to be really important for students to make these decisions in combination with good counseling.”