Under the Radar: Changes to the ACT's Reading & English Tests

By DR. Ashleigh Barnes, University Select LLC

While its competitor, the College Board, announced to the world that the SAT was undergoing substantive changes, the ACT Inc. took an alternative route. Arguably, the ACT Inc. did not completely overhaul its test. It is also true that there was some evidence that the ACT was evolving over the course of 2015-2016.

However, the nature and extent of the changes to the test only became apparent with the publication of the new ACT Official Guide (May 31, 2016). These structural and substantive changes to the ACT are significant enough to require study and reflection as to how they impact test strategies. This article briefly identifies those changes. If there is a take away message, it is this: the June 11, 2016 administration of the ACT marked an inflection point. Students, if you took the test prior to June, you need to get current before trying again... things have changed.

The data in this article were generated by comparing University Select’s statistical analysis of all publicly available tests prior to the April 2016 ACT with the contents of the diagnostic tests in the new ACT Official Guide and the June 2016 and beyond ACT tests.

Main takeaway points:

  • The English Test is statistically similar, with no major changes to question categories or their distribution.
  • The Reading Test underwent structural and substantive changes that rendered it, if not completely foreign, subject to a strategy rethink.


The Reading Test

The Reading Test has undergone significant changes. There are three major differences: one that is easy to accommodate, while the other two require a new method.

The first major difference concerns parallel passages. Parallel passages appeared intermittently (for the first time) on ACT’s administered in 2015. As of June 2016, however, students can expect a parallel passage on every ACT Reading Test. This is confirmed by the presence of a Parallel passage on each practice test in the new Official ACT Guide. The question set appending a parallel passage is conveniently apportioned into questions relating to passage 1, those relating to passage 2, and then a set of 3 questions relating to both passages. Until questions 7-10, parallel passages represent mini-passages for which no change in strategy is required. The final 3 questions often require “big picture” thinking (literally – answer them after completing a big picture analysis of both passages), but rarely rise to the level of complexity of the parallel passage questions on the SAT. So, in form, the ACT has changed, while in practice, there is little change.  

The second more fundamental change is that the Reading Test relates to the number of questions that reference a line number in the passage. The ACT is characteristic for having substantially more detail questions without line references (40%) as compared to the SAT (19%). Since April 2016 the ACT now includes 10% fewer of these detail questions with line reference questions, making 50% of the questions on the ACT’s Reading Test questions with no line reference.

The third change is that there are now even fewer vocabulary questions, 1-3 per test. While this indeed can either help a student with struggles with vocabulary or can hurt a student who is good at it, the issue that is even more profound is that vocabulary questions have line references. Thus, fewer vocab questions means fewer line references. The combination of more detail questions without line references and fewer vocabulary questions requires examining how we approach passages.

Before April 2016, the Reading Test contained an average of 3-line reference questions; now students will only encounter 2-line reference questions per passage. Furthermore, it is not unusual to encounter a passage with just 1 line reference. The difference between having 1 line reference and 3 markedly alters how one approaches a Reading passage, making a question-led approach more challenging!


The English Test

The ACT has kept the English Test virtually the same. There are, however, a few more punctuation questions. Notably – the slight uptick in punctuation also mirrors the SAT’s increase in punctuation questions since publishing the four initial practice SAT test. So while the ACT English Test has remained largely the same – a notably point is that the new SAT has greater overlap with the ACT English test. The two tests, the ACT’s English Test and the SAT’s Writing Test, are the most similar across tests, substantively, as well as in time per question. The ACT does almost double the number of questions on its English test – making it more of an endurance event.