ACT and SAT scores have traditionally been requested by college admissions committees that use this data, in addition to other application components, to assess the college readiness of applicants. However, since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, many U.S. colleges have begun to ease up on their standardized testing policies.
Some institutions have done away with their exam requirements entirely while others have temporarily shifted to a test-optional policy. Still others are choosing to phase out their testing requirements over the next few years.
For now, ACT scores remain an important factor in many students’ college application processes. To accurately interpret test results and then make well-reasoned decisions — as well as set appropriate target scores at the onset of their exam prep — ACT test-takers must know how to read and understand their ACT score report.
You can expect to encounter the following sections on an ACT score report:
— Composite and section scores.
— Detailed results.
— National and state ranks.
Composite and Section Scores
Composite score is another term for your total score, and it is calculated by averaging your four section scores and rounding that average to the nearest whole number. The lowest composite score you can receive on the ACT is a 1, while the highest is a 36. Very few students earn a 1 or a 36; among the graduating class of 2020, the average composite score nationally was a 20.6.
You will also see scores for each individual section of the test, which includes English, m ath, reading and science. The same scale of 1-36 applies to these sections. The optional writing test has a subject level score ranging from 2-12 that is derived from the rounded average of four similarly scored domain scores.
Imagine a student named Jacob has just received his ACT score report. He has earned the rough national average of a 21 as his composite score. His section breakdown is as follows: 19 on English, 23 on math, 20 on reading and 22 on science. Jacob opted not to take the optional essay, so he received no score for writing.
It is not entirely possible to say what constitutes a good or bad score on the ACT, as these terms are relative to you and your college admissions goals. However, most high school students aim for a 21 or higher, given the national average. Students who are applying to competitive schools generally look to score above 30.
As you move down the page, your score report becomes even more specific. The four ACT sections are broken down into question type and the percentage of correct answers. For instance, under math, you would see a percentage value for algebra, functions, geometry and other subsections.
Each question type is also displayed with its respective ACT Readiness Range, or the score range that suggests a student is prepared for college-level work in that field. A white check mark in a purple circle indicates that you have scored within that range.
When Jacob looks at his detailed results, let’s imagine, he sees those check marks in the categories of algebra in the math section and interpretation of data in the science section. More specifically, he scored 80% in both areas, which he is happy with. However, he scored just 50% on conventions of standard English, so he should spend extra time reviewing grammar, usage and mechanics before taking the ACT again.
If you have not reached the readiness benchmark in more than one entire section, you should stop and consider whether you have enough time to further prepare for and retake the ACT, and whether your scores are appropriate for your schools of interest.
National and State Ranks
Your ACT score report will also include your national and state ranks, both for your composite score and your scores on the four individual sections. Your ranks are percentages that indicate the proportion of students who scored the same or lower than you. A rank of 70, therefore, would mean you outperformed or performed equal to 70% of test-takers.
You will also see a rank for your STEM and English Language Arts, or ELA, category scores. Your STEM score is a rough average of your performance on math and science combined while your ELA score is a rough average of your performance on English, reading and writing combined. If you don’t do the writing test, no ELA score will be reported.
Let’s say Jacob scored within the 53rd percentile nationally and within the 60th percentile in his home state of Nevada. His math, science and STEM ranks are a few points higher than his ranks in reading and English. Jacob expected these results and feels his performance aligns with his plans to major in engineering. Still, he decides to take the ACT again to hopefully improve his performance in all areas.
While a low state or national rank may be upsetting for students, it is essential to keep your results in perspective. A lower-than-average ACT score is not automatic grounds for rejection. Remember that college admissions officers evaluate your profile holistically, appraising all components in a fair manner.
Deciding whether to retake the ACT or accept your latest score starts with interpreting your performance, and understanding your ACT score report is a key step in the testing process. By making proper sense of your results, you can take the best course of action for your future.
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