How Valuable is the ACT?

If you do poorly on the science and reading section of the ACT will  you struggle in college?
Not necessarily, according to a new intriguing study conducted by researchers at Stanford and the University of Chicago. The research concludes that the test scores on the reading and science sections of the ACT have “little or no” ability to predict whether the test taker will succeed in college.
Here’s where you can read the ACT study’s abstract. And here’s an article about the study from Inside Higher Ed:

ACT’s Validity Questioned

If the research is spot on, it certainly cries out for schools to take into account the subscores rather than the composite one.
In addition to the optional essay, the ACT has four underlying subscores for:

  • Reading
  • English
  • Math
  • Science

While each of these are categories are subscored, schools have traditionally just used the composite score.

ACT Superscoring

What I’d like to see is more college superscoring the ACT just like they do with the SAT. If you aren’t sure what that is, here is an article from The Washington Post on ACT superscoring
I’ve been stewing about ACT scoring policies lately because my nephew Matt will be applying to colleges in the fall. He just took the ACT a second time and he is awaiting his scores. The first time he performed great on the English section, but his math subscore wasn’t good. My son Ben, a math major, is helping him this summer by first reviewing all the math problems in The Real ACT Prep Guide, which is a book I’d recommend.
I’d love for the schools on Matt’s list to use ACT superscoring. It would take some of the pressure off him since he already has a great English score.

Finding Colleges That Superscore the ACT

The good news is that there appears to be a growing number of schools that are superscoring the ACT. I’m not aware though of any official list. College Admission Partners, a college consulting firm, however, does keep this list of colleges that superscore the ACT.
What I’d recommend is that you contact schools and ask whether they superscore the ACT. Out of curiosity, I made a call  to William Woods University in Fulton, Mo, which has an equine program that interests Matt. Somebody in the admission office told me the school doesn’t superscore. Sigh.

A Common Application Change for the Best

Here’s one more positive development: the Common Application, which hundreds of schools use, began allowing students to include their best ACT subscores in the 2010-2011 admission season. So even if a school only uses the best overall ACT score, it will still see the top subscores broken out.
Scott Anderson, the director of outreach at The Common Application, Inc., explained to me that the non-profit membership organization decided to offer that option when the College Board reintroduced Score Choice for its SAT test. Here’s what he said:

Basically, we came to the conclusion that we wanted the application to be a place for students to showcase their best performance with the understanding that self-reported scores are not officials scores….We made the decision to treat both the ACT and SAT the same way: use the app to report best subscores regardless of date, and leave it to the student to make sure they meet all official testing requirements.

Read more on the SAT and ACT tests:

7 Ways to Boost Your ACT or SAT Scores
SAT and ACT: Which is the Better Test?
SAT or ACT: Which Scores Are Better?
Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of Shrinking the Cost of College, a workbook available on her website. She also writes a college blog for CBSMoneyWatch. On Twitter follow her @CollegeBlogs.

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  1. Since you mentioned it, my daughter took the ACT with writing this spring and got a good score. She then took a state mandated ACT without writing and got a lower overall score but her math subscore was higher (a 36!). If she superscored her ACT with the better math score, her best composite would stay the same due to rounding. Would a college be that much more impressed?

  2. The only potential negative is that the ACT scores are sent by test date so submitting scores from different test dates will add yet another small cost to the process. Result? death by 10,001 paper cuts.

    1. Patty,
      Thanks for your comment. With so much money at stake for an individual child, I’d suggest that it’s well worth the small price. Even bumping up your score slightly can result in a better financial aid or merit awards from colleges.
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy