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A Brief History of the ACT

The American College Test (ACT) is a standardized college admissions test given to high school students typically in the spring of their junior year. It was first introduced in 1959 by Everett Franklin Lindquist, an education professor from the University of Iowa as a rival to the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). Unlike the SAT, which tests cognitive reasoning, the ACT’s goal was to assess students on what they were learning in high school. Through the years, however, the ACT has changed.

The early ACT tested students on English, Math, Social Studies, and Natural Sciences and was the first standardized test to include science. However, the test changed in 1989 by eliminating the sections on Social Studies and Natural Sciences and adding Reading and Science Reasoning sections. This change brought the test more closely to what it is today. The Social Studies section tested on specific knowledge about U.S. history whereas the Reading section now focuses more on comprehension and reading ability. Trigonometry and algebra were added to the Math section, and the English section now focuses less on grammar and more on general writing skills.


In 2005, an optional essay was added. The prompt asks students to take a position on a given topic. When the essay was first added, the prompt focused on issues related to high school, but in 2015, the prompt changed to more worldly issues. The essay score used to be out of 12 but is now given a score out of 36. Also in 2015, the time limit increased from 30 minutes to 40 minutes. With the writing portion, the entire test lasts about 3 hours and 40 minutes, and 3 hours without the optional essay.


Students answer a total of 215 questions and receive a point for each correct answer. Penalties are not given for wrong answers. The total number of correct answers on each section is the raw score, which is then converted to an overall ACT score between 1 and 36. The ACT score (composite score) is an average from each of the four sections that is divided by 4 and rounded to the nearest whole number. Although the test results will also give subscores in 7 categories, the composite score is what colleges use to determine admission.


The ACT shows a student’s strengths and weaknesses in math, science, reading, and English. Since the ACT is seen as a predictor of how well students will perform academically in college, students can work to improve their composite score and therefore improve their chances of admission and scholarships. According to ACT’s own studies, a benchmark score of 18 in English, 22 in math, 21 in reading, and 24 in science predicts earning a grade of B or higher for over 50% of students in their first year of college.


In 2020, the ACT canceled the spring testing due to COVID-19. Since students missed many months of school and testing for the fall is tentative, many colleges across the country are waiving standardized test scores as part of admissions for 2021 applicants.



References and Further Reading:

“The ACT - Solutions for College and Career Readiness.” ACT, 2020, www.act.org/.

Vigdor, Neil, and Johnny Diaz. “More Colleges Are Waiving SAT and ACT

Requirements.” New York Times, 21 May 2020,

www.nytimes.com/article/sat-act-test-optional-colleges-coronavirus.html.

“Your Handy ACT Scoring Guide.” The Princeton Review,

www.princetonreview.com/college-advice/act-scoring-guide#!tab2.

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