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Is One ACT Harder Than Another?

You may have heard that the difficulty of the ACT varies based on when and where you test. I have heard of students driving well out of their way in order to take the test at what they believe to be an easier testing site. Many students also believe that certain testing dates are easier than others. Does the difficulty of the ACT really depend on where you test and when you take it? Well, the answer is not as simple as just a “yes” or “no”.

 

Where You Test: The ACT is a national exam, so, regardless of where you test, you should be taking the same exam as students at other testing sites. The purpose of the ACT is to provide colleges with an unbiased and standardized benchmark against which college readiness is evaluated. If the ACT at one testing site is more difficult than the test at another site, then the ACT would be useless, as ACT scores would have no real meaning. While the ACT will not vary in difficulty from one testing site to another, the testing site itself can make taking the ACT a difficult experience. Some testing sites are more organized and structured than others. While attentive and serious students may frequent one testing site, other sites may tend to attract less engaged students who can become a distraction to other test takers. Also, factors like room temperature and the size of your desk, although seemingly unimportant, can make a difference when you are taking a high-stakes, timed exam like the ACT. It is amazing how much of a distraction a small desk or cold room can be when you are under stress.  

When You Test: The ACT is not scored on a set scale like your tests in school. In school, if you miss 2 out of 10 questions on an exam, you score an 80. The scoring of the ACT is more complicated. The ACT scoring scale is based on the performance of all test takers who took that particular ACT; to clarify, this means each ACT has a different scale. For example, a student missing 1 question (39/40 correct) in the Reading portion of the ACT receives a score of 35 on one ACT, but, on the next ACT, the same student misses 1 question but receives a score of 33.

How the Scale Works: Think of the ACT scoring scale as similar to a teacher who curves the grades on an exam – a few students score very highly, most score in the middle of the grade distribution, and a few score very low. Since the majority of students did not score very highly, the teacher adjusts the distribution of grades so that all students’ exam scores move up enough to achieve a more even grade distribution. In a way, the same principle applies to the ACT. After ACT answer sheets are submitted to ACT, the ACT “people” review these. They then create a scoring scale for this particular ACT based on how well all test-takers performed. If, for example, the people at ACT notice that most students missed a certain question, they will likely adjust the scale of the test to reduce the impact that this apparently difficult question has on score, which is very similar to a teacher “throwing out” a bad question on an exam. Unless a student has prepared for the ACT, his or her scores will not vary significantly from one test to the next, but, as described above, a student answering the same number of questions correctly on two separate tests can receive a slightly different score on each.

What Does This Mean? The way the ACT is scaled and scored explains why some students see a subject score drop by a point or two from one test to the next: the student may have performed identically on each test but receives a slightly higher or lower score depending on where he or she is on the scale. If you are a high-scoring student, the scale can work to your advantage. For example, if you answered 38/40 questions correctly and the ACT scale is adjusted to compensate for a frequently missed question, your “true” score may move from a 34 to a 35 or 36. Regardless of the actual scale of an ACT, most ACT scores will fall in the middle of the score distribution, while a small percentage of scores will be at the very high and low ends of the scale.

So, Why Do Some Tests Seem Harder Than Others? Aside from the variance in the scoring scale we just discussed, some ACT testing dates gain a reputation for being more difficult due to the types of students testing on that date. Before I go any further, let me clarify that students of many different ages take the test on any given testing date. That being said, certain testing dates tend to attract certain ages. For example, many college scholarship deadlines are scheduled in early December (before the December ACT). This means that the October ACT is the last chance many seniors have to take the ACT before applying for scholarships. Since the October test is the last chance for many seniors to test, you can expect quite a few seniors to take this test. During the Winter and Spring testing dates, many Juniors begin taking the test. Juniors are under much less pressure to perform well on a given testing date since they have several testing dates remaining if they do not score as highly as they would like. This lack of pressure coupled with the fact that many Juniors are taking or have recently taken high school courses like Math, English, and Chemistry (all of which help students stay fresh on skills and knowledge needed for the ACT) means that the test may seem easier to those taking it during the Spring (many Juniors) than it does to Seniors taking the test in the fall. Nevertheless, I have heard students who have taken every test date available claim that certain tests were much more difficult than others. This is somewhat true -- until you factor in the scoring scale. Here's why: If the questions in test A are more difficult than the questions in test B, then expect that the majority of students will miss more questions in A than B. Because more questions were consistently missed by a large percentage of test takers in test A, the scale of test A will be more generous than the scale of test B (a score of 30 could mean 30-32 correct answers on test A, while a score of 30 could mean 34 correct answers on test B). I experienced this - My ACT score increased by 4 points from the December test to the following February test, but I really thought I had performed more poorly on the February test than on the December test. I'm glad I was wrong.

What Should I Do? While you cannot affect the scale of the ACT, you can take steps to make sure your score falls as high on the scale as possible. First, choose a testing site that you are comfortable with. For some, this means a testing site where their friends will be, but, for others, friends could be a source of distraction. Choose a site carefully. Second, be prepared for the ACT. While there is no way to know exactly which questions will be on the test, an ACT Prep book (we recommend the Real ACT Prep Guide, which is created by the makers of the ACT), ACT Prep Course, and ACT Tutoring can significantly improve your score. Finally, take time to review the scoring scales of retired ACT exams to get a general idea of how many correct answers you need in order to reach a certain score. While your final score may vary slightly based on the scale of the test, you should score close to what you predict. Knowing how many correct answers you need will help you decide how many questions you can skip (if needed). You can find retired ACT tests by visiting actstudent.org, buying a copy of the Real ACT Prep Guide, and by doing a quick Google search for “ACT Practice Tests.” Be sure the ACT tests are actual ACT tests. Some of the tips and strategies found in non-ACT-produced books (Kaplan, Princeton Review, etc.) are good for preparing, but, since their practice tests are not actual ACT tests, the scales are not accurate.

Remember that the testing site, scoring scale, and testing date of the ACT are not going to make or break your score. Your test-day preparedness has a much greater impact on your score than anything else, so be sure you tackle the ACT with a solid strategy and plenty of confidence.