Big ACT News

Section Retesting, Superscoring, Online testing

It’s not often that we get BIG NEWS from the world of standardized testing, but today is that day. In fact, not since 2005, when the SAT moved to a score of 2400 can I remember such a seismic shift. (And let’s be sure to remember how well that went over, now that the SAT is back to 1600.)

These “enhancements”, as ACT is calling them, are breaking news, prompting lots of celebrating (students) and lots of questions (colleges). Here, we’ll break down what we do and don’t know, so that you can assess how this impacts you, your student, and your testing plans.

Let’s look at it in pieces:

  • What is changing?

  • The Good News, The Bad News, and The Questions

What is Changing?

We’ve got three big changes to talk about: section retesting, superscoring, and online testing

Section Retesting

Beginning in September 2020, ACT will allow students to retake individual subject tests, rather than the entire ACT.

Holy moly. This is huge!

Wow. Still stunned by this. ACT has NEVER allowed this before. It was all-or-nothing. The ACT was four sections long, plus the optional essay, and that was that.

ACT says this: With the introduction of ACT SECTION RETESTING, students who have taken the ACT test now will have the opportunity to retake one or more single-section ACT tests (English, reading, math and science) to improve their scores.

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And students everywhere rejoiced

What does this mean? It means that after a student has taken the complete ACT (“the entire battery of tests” they call it), they have the opportunity to retake an individual section if they want to raise just one score (or two or three). For instance, no longer will students have to sit through the entire test if they only need to raise their math score.

Details, details. Lots of details.

  • Section retests are identical to the ACT test in content covered, timing and the number of questions for each subject test.

  • Section retests are only available to students who have completed the full battery either through national, state or district testing. (In other words, a student CANNOT take one section at a time to build an ACT score. Students must take the full test at least once, before they are eligible for section RE-tests.)

  • Section retests will be offered seven times a year, on the same dates as the national ACT test.

  • ACT section retests will only be available online at approved testing centers. No paper format for ACT section retests.

  • Students may take up to three section retests on a single test date. The section retests will all occur on the same day.

  • Cost? They haven’t announced it yet, although an ACT spokesperson told the New York Times that the cost for section retesting will be lower than for the full ACT. That’s likely. I’d expect that it will be less, but it won’t be 1/4 the cost for 1/4 of the test. It will probably (and should) cost more to take each section individually than to take all four of them together.

Good for students? Heck yes!! So many students struggle to raise just one or two of their scores, but have to sit through the entire test, re-taking tests in areas where they’ve already proven themselves, worrying all the while that they will slip up and their scores will drop in an area where they did well the last time. It’s a ton of pressure to perform at their best in every area on a single day! This eases that pressure, and - combined with the superscore report - allows students to focus their attention on one or two areas at a time, demonstrating their competence over time.


Beginning in September 2020, ACT will give students the ability to report their superscores (The best individual section performances, no matter the test date) rather than only composite scores (from a single test date).

ACT says this: Superscoring benefits students by allowing them to submit their highest scores for college admission and scholarship purposes. Students’ superscores will increase if they do better on a section retest than they did on previous times they took it, or if they take the entire test again. Superscoring and section retests showcase students’ skills and accomplishments gained over a lifetime and not only their test-taking abilities on one particular day.

What does this mean? It means that if a student does well on math and science on one test, and that student tests again, staying the same (or even dropping a few) in math and science, but gaining in English and Reading, then those highest subtest scores are combined. This is always beneficial to students! They can combine their best scores from different days, rather than having to score their highest in every area on the same day.

How is this new? Students can already determine their superscore, and some colleges already use a superscore for admission consideration. But right now, for that to happen, students must send multiple score reports to colleges (there is a fee for each one sent) so that the school can see all their highest scores. ACT is saying that now they (ACT!) will issue a superscore report that students can send to colleges.

ACT says this: Finally, the introduction of ACT SUPERSCORING will allow students who have taken the ACT more than once or section retests to have ACT use their best scores to calculate their composite superscore, which will better reflect their knowledge and achievements. (ACT will provide test results from an entire ACT test, along with the best scores, to higher education institutions who determine and maintain their own admissions score policies.)

Good for students? Heck yes!!! Students spend too much money sending multiple score reports so colleges can see their highest scores in various areas. This puts all those highest scores on one report. The big question is — will colleges accept superscores now? That remains to be seen. Just because ACT issues it doesn’t mean colleges have to count it.

Online Testing

Beginning in September 2020, students can choose to take the ACT test online or on paper. ACT says this is to better align with how students learn and the comfort many of them feel taking tests online. That’s true. It’s also true that it costs a lot of money to print millions of tests, ship them, ship them back, and process them. A lot of money. This isn’t a shocking development, given the way the world is going. The students I spoke with today have all said “I can’t believe it took this long.” They’re right. Using a pencil to bubble in a answers is pretty old technology, considering how the rest of the world functions.

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So last century

ACT says this: Students who take the test online get faster test results. In fact, their multiple-choice scores and the ACT composite score will begin to be reported as soon as two business days after the test date, allowing them and the schools and scholarships to which they apply to make better, more informed and timely decisions.

TWO DAYS. Well, now, that’s an improvement.

What does this mean? It means, first of all, that testing sites (namely, schools) are going to be scrambling to figure out how to adjust for this. Students cannot test on their own computers; they must use secure computers and be proctored appropriately. Other than that, it means that students will have the option to test online and get their scores back quickly. After having spent the past week working with seniors whose ACT scores were not released yet, trying to strategically send some scores to colleges before a deadline while waiting as long as possible for new scores, not knowing when they will be released. — I can tell you that a quick turnaround will be tremendously helpful.

The good, the bad, and the questions

The Good News

  • These are all student-centered changes.

  • Students won’t have to pay to send multiple score reports to colleges in order to share their best scores.

  • Students won’t have to pay to take the entire ACT, when they really just want to raise one score (or two).

  • Students won’t knock themselves out for an entire Saturday morning, when they really just want to raise one score (or two).

  • Students can focus on a specific weak area, and their results will be reflective of their performance over time.

The Bad News

  • While the changes themselves seem to be good ones in terms of the student experience, there is likely to be a great deal of confusion (and subsequent frustration) as everyone adapts to these “enhancements”. For instance, many test sites are already full on the popular test dates, and end up putting students on a waitlist for a seat. Students taking the section retest will be competing for those seats that are already short in supply.

  • A secure and substantial infrastructure is necessary for online testing. It’s possible that schools with the money to provide that environment will upgrade, while schools without abundant resources will fall even further behind.

The Questions

  • How will colleges respond to this development? Will they accept individual subject test scores? Will they superscore?

  • Will more schools go test-optional now?

  • How will high schools that are also testing centers adapt to online testing? (How many logistical issues does this raise in finding rooms, proctors ….and reliable internet?)

  • What will happen if (when) the average scores go up? If a 30 is required for a certain scholarship and ACT scores all generally rise, will that requirement also go up?

  • What about students with accommodations? How will those accommodations be offered in online testing?

There’s a whole lot we don’t know about how this will roll out next fall.

We do know, though, that this changes the landscape of standardized testing in a remarkable way, much to the benefit of students.