The 2019 ACT Change — What Does It Mean for You?

The world of higher education is buzzing this month, thanks to a big announcement from the ACT. 

As of next September, students hoping to get a better score will be able to retake individual sections of the test, rather than sitting for the entire three-hour test again.

Currently, each ACT section is graded on a scale of 1 to 36. Students’ sectional scores are then averaged into a composite score. 

Next year, though, students will receive a new “superscore” that includes the highest subsection score from each time they took the test. 

What does this ACT section re-testing change mean for test-takers? How does this change (or not change) your ACT prep

We weigh in here.

Benefits of the ACT Change

Obviously, this ACT change could benefit many students. 

For example, if a student knows that math is their weakest area, they can retake just the math section, without having to retake the reading, science, English, or optional writing sections.

This will allow students to allocate their time more efficiently by focusing their studying on specific sections. For those who work with hired test prep tutors, it could save money by reducing the amount of ground that needs to be covered. It also could make for better scores simply because students won’t be as fatigued from going through the entire, lengthy exam. 

Plus, retaking an individual section would be cheaper than retaking the entire exam.

The company hasn’t yet announced how much it will cost to retake sections, but at the moment, retaking the entire exam costs $68 including the optional writing section, and $52 without it.

In addition, as of next year, students can also opt to take the ACT online, on the days the test is administered nationwide. (At the moment, it’s only given online in districts that administer the test during school, and at international test centers.)

That’s good news for students who may feel more comfortable using a computer rather than paper and pencil. 

Moreover, online results can be received within two business days instead of the two to eight weeks for paper tests, which could also benefit students juggling what test results to submit against various application deadlines. 

Downsides of the ACT Change

However, there are also some potential downsides to this policy. In an October 8th New York Times piece, consultants in the field express concerns that the changes might advantage those with the money to hire coaches and advisors and to take ACT sections repeatedly. 

Some also wonder if enabling students to tweak their scores to such a fine degree could make test prep even more of an obsession than it is now. 

“These ‘improvements’ don’t move the admissions process any closer to the destination that I recommend, which is not eliminating tests entirely, but downgrading their importance and allowing only one — or maybe two — test sessions per student,” says Sally Rubenstone, senior contributor at online admissions forum College Confidential, in the Times story. 

ACT Change (1)

Of course, an unavoidable downside to the change is the plain uncertainty it will now introduce into the admissions process, at least for the first year or two that the new policy is in place. 

College admissions offices, for example, will have to decide how to evaluate students with a superscore earned from taking the entire ACT more than once, versus students who retook just parts of it.

“I think we’re going to have to take a step back and think about whether the way we superscore today is the way we’re going to superscore it in the future,” says Kent Rinehart, dean of undergraduate admission at Marist College, in the Times story. “It would not surprise me if we took a slightly different approach.”

Some speculate that this puts pressure on the SAT to adopt a similar policy. In the meantime, more students might opt to take the ACT over the SAT because of the possibility that they can improve their scores more easily. 

The ACT Change: What Do We Think?

There are a few considerations worth noting with respect to this ACT section re-testing change.

1) Little Feedback from Colleges

The ACT and the College Board can create whatever new products they wish. 

However, none of these products will matter if colleges and universities don’t adopt them. We haven’t heard much from the college perspective about the ACT change.

It’s shocking to think that the ACT didn’t consult with schools to achieve some sort of buy-in before unleashing such a radical new change, but it seems like this might be the case since it looks like they’re still trying to convince schools to adopt the re-tests.

From the ACT website:

We recommend colleges adopt the ACT section retest score into their score-use policy and superscore the ACT since this reflects the student’s command of the subject.”

Our guess is that schools are currently evaluating internally whether ACT’s research is correct and whether or not to accept ACT section re-tests.

2) Fewer Schools Superscore the ACT (vs. the SAT)

Many colleges superscore test scores, which means that they consider only the highest section scores of the SAT and ACT (read more about superscoring here).

However, there are many schools that will superscore the SAT but not the ACT, including several of the most selective schools. For example:

College Policy
Princeton “Princeton will consider the highest individual section results across all sittings of the SAT and the highest composite score for the ACT”
Stanford “For the ACT, we will review all subscores and focus on the highest Composite from all sittings. For the SAT, we will focus on the highest individual Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and Math scores from all test sittings.
Harvard* “We do not create superscores for applicants. We will evaluate your application noting the highest test scores in each section across test dates for the SAT and your strongest sitting for the ACT.”

*Harvard technically doesn’t “superscore,” but the effective result is the same

For schools that don’t already superscore the ACT, it’s highly unlikely they will accept the ACT section re-tests.

3) Online Testing Will be New for Many Schools

Please note that ACT section re-tests are only available online.

If the testing locations have historically proctored paper tests and are now also proctoring online tests, there might be some implementation issues as they work out some operational kinks.

Furthermore, we predict there will be a shortage of seats due to a limited number of available computers.

From the student’s perspective, switching from paper to online also will impact how students will want to prepare for these re-tests. 

4) There Is an Advantage to Re-Taking the Entire Test

The current process of re-taking the entire ACT is time-consuming and can be tiring.

However, there is a significant advantage to re-taking the entire test. We’ve had many instances of students who decided to re-take a test with the intention of improving just one section, but ended up also improving scores in other sections. 

If you’re going to take the time to sign up for a test and drive to the testing center, you might as well take the other sections too.

Our Recommendation

We are currently recommending that all of our families ignore this announcement for now.

We don’t yet have enough information from the colleges themselves. It’s unclear how much better sectional re-takes are versus full re-takes. Plus, potential implementation issues of online testing means we’ll want to wait and see.

Much of this seems to be a marketing gimmick and we’re skeptical that section re-testing will have a significant impact on students’ scores.

For the class of 2020 – This change has no impact on you. You don’t have to do anything.

For the class of 2021 – This change will take place late in the process (during your senior year) so you shouldn’t make any dramatic changes to your strategy.

For the classes of 2022 and higher:

  • If you’re planning on taking the SAT, continue along this track.
  • If you haven’t decided yet which test to take, the ideal way to determine the best fit is to take full-length, timed, official practice tests of both the SAT and ACT and then compare results. If you don’t have the time to do that, you can answer a couple of questions here.
  • If you’re planning on applying to one of the more selective colleges that do not already super-score the ACT, then this change will probably have no impact on you.

The concept of section re-testing is fairly radical and comes with a lot of uncertainty. We’ll continue to monitor the situation and update this post with new information.

Feel free to reach out to us should you have any additional questions.

Greg Wong & Kevin WongGreg & Kevin

Greg and Kevin are brothers and the co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They are Princeton engineering graduates with over 20 years of education experience. They apply their data and research-backed problem-solving skills to the test prep and college preparation process. Their unique approach places a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service as key components of college admissions success.