“So what did you get on the ACT?” As soon as two weeks have passed since your child’s test date, they will start logging onto the website several times a day, reloading and reloading, until the answer to that question finally appears: a single two-digit number. Students are often so focused on that number, and the handful of subscores below it, that they overlook a statement that appears in small print above their score: “ACT will notify you by email when your score report is ready.” Unfortunately, many students and parents never look at the full score report and, therefore, don’t fully understand ACT scores. It’s really a missed opportunity because fully understanding ACT scores helps students and families make informed decisions about their next steps.
Sample Score Report
For ease of reading this article, we recommend downloading a sample ACT score report.
Upon opening the report, you’ll notice a two-digit number, labeled “composite,” on the upper lefthand corner of the first page. ACT intentionally places this number in the first place our eyes would look — the composite is seen as both the first and the last word on how well the student performed. This number is the reason your child kept refreshing their phone’s web browser. This number is what colleges use to discuss the ACT scores of the students they admit. For instance, the middle 50 percent of students starting at the University of Michigan this fall scored 31 to 34, and the middle range starting at Fordham scored 28 to 32. Calculated on a scale from 1 to 36, the composite is the average of your child’s performance on the multiple choice sections of the test. (For reference, the national average ACT composite is about 21.)
STEM and ELA Scores
The next step in understanding ACT scores is to look at the numbers extending to the right of the composite, all of which are scored on the same 36-point scale as the composite. First are the scores for the Math and Science sections, followed by a STEM subscore that represents the average of those two numbers. Next come the scores for the English (proofreading) and Reading sections. If your child took the essay section — which is officially optional but highly recommended — the next score in the line will be labeled “Writing”. Writing is scored differently, on a scale of 1 to 12. But the ACT uses a formula to incorporate the Writing score along with the English and Reading scores into the last score in the column, a subscore labeled ELA for English Language Arts. A graph that extends below each of the scores gives a visual representation of the tester’s score on the 36-point scale, as well as that number’s distance above or below the score that ACT considers a demonstration of college readiness in that subject area.
It is worth noting that the STEM and ELA subscores are arguably of limited utility. First, they don’t match the way that students conceptualize the test, as four or five distinct sections. Second, the STEM subscore is complicated in that the Science section does not rely on scientific content knowledge — instead, it behaves like a critical reading section about scientific topics that incorporates charts and graphic representations. However, the two graphs below the section scores and subscores graph are definitely useful in understanding ACT scores. The left graph measures the tester’s performance on each section relative to other ACT testers in the state, and the right graph measures performance relative to all ACT testers in the nation. Instead of the 36-point scale, these graphs are scaled as percentiles, a measurement many students and parents find easier to understand.
The percentiles allow testers and parents to conceptualize the strength of the tester’s performance, and the bottom of the page, labeled “Detailed Results,” offers a path forward for improvement. For each multiple choice section, the report lists a few major categories of skills. Next to each category is the raw number of questions answered correctly out of the total number of questions in that skill, plus the score translated into a percentage. Above the bar that serves as a visual representation of the percentage is a marker for what ACT calls the “Readiness Range,” the percentage correct that testers would need to earn in order to meet the test’s standards of college readiness. Categories that have reached college readiness will have a checkmark next to them.
So how does your child know whether to test again? Use your newfound skills with understanding ACT scores to decide, starting with the composite. Has it fallen comfortably into the range for their target colleges? Conversely, should they adjust their college list to more comfortably fit their composite? What about the section scores — are any of them lower than you’d like? If your child decides to test again — and many students end up testing two to three times (score choice or super scoring may also apply to your child’s college list) — the “Detailed Results” page lets them know which skills need the most development. A skillful tutor can help your child identify the most useful practice materials and help them find strategies to let their skills shine.
College and Career Planning
Standardized tests are an important element of the college application process, and students should spend ample time preparing for them; as a parent, though, you want to make sure that your child is not feeling unduly anxious or concerned about their scores. One section of the ACT score report that might inadvertently cause stress is the section labeled “College and Career Planning,” which draws inferences about their future careers based on the tester’s results. While this section is well-intentioned, we contend that the ACT simply does not cover a broad enough range of material or skills to predict, for instance, whether a high-school junior could eventually become a good engineer. Your child is very much at the beginning of their college and career journey, and their future holds all sorts of possibilities. Ideally, the feeling that their test results will bring is one of pride and empowerment.
To learn more about understanding SAT Scores, click here.