The new ACT, or, The Only Constant Is Change

The ACT released a new “Official ACT Prep Guide.” I like to look on the bright side, so let’s start with the positive: it includes prompts for the new Writing Test. Sure, they are a year overdue. Still, it’s something! If you want to read the rest of my review of the book (preview: the rest of it isn’t pretty), you could shuffle over to the Amazon listing for it to check it out.

This post focuses instead on some of the changes to the test that the new book reveals. When SAT makes changes to the test, they announce them two years ahead of time and promote them in bloated New York Times stories. When the ACT makes changes, they simply make them and wait for you to notice.

The biggest change is to the content of the math test. It has gotten more advanced. We are now looking at problems that cover advanced probability, combinations/permutations/fundamental counting principle stuff, and vectors. None of this is impossible to teach; it’s just new to the test and therefore an additional responsibility for students. Are those changes enough to make a student consider taking the SAT instead?

No. I don’t think it’s reason enough to switch tests. Here’s why: while the hardest questions have gotten significantly harder, the curve has also become much more generous. It has always worked that way with the ACT. If you get an easy test, you have to ace it, and if you get a hard test, you get some margin for error.

The curves now are, by the standards of the past, the softest they’ve ever been. On the first test in the new book, you could get 3 questions wrong and still get a perfect score. On the same test, you could get EIGHT questions wrong and still get a 34, which is in the 99th percentile. Think about that: that means that the top 1 percent of scorers missed as many as eight questions out of sixty. That’s a lot. I have never seen an ACT curve like that before.

What’s going to happen as a result of the change is that A) students are going to do worse in terms of the percentage of questions they get right, and B) they’ll get exactly the same in terms of their scale score (1-36) as they would have on an easier test.

Here’s how the change can actually play to a student’s advantage: those topics that have been added are all things we’re going to teach our students. Even though they are hard, they can most definitely be taught. The content is harder but can be learned, and the curve is more generous. Potentially this means prepared students will fare even better than they did on the previous version of the test.

 

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