7 Things Parents Need to Know About the In-School ACT

By Suzanne M. Wood, Raleigh Tutoring

If your child is a junior at a Wake County public school, I know what they will be up to on Tuesday, Feb. 25: Skipping most classes. For good reason, though. This is the day Wake County will administer the ACT to all juniors on the state’s dime. It’s a great opportunity for your child, especially if they haven’t taken the test before.

Here are some tips to help your students make the most of the free opportunity to take the test.

Know what will be tested

The ACT is a multiple-choice test covering math, science, reading comprehension and English (grammar, organization, etc.) in four separate sections. The essay portion comes last. It’s an optional section, but, for the state test, juniors are required to do the essay. The essay is not included in the student’s composite score. Composite scores are the average of the four section scores and range from 1 to 36, with 20 being about average.

Aim for the range

To be a competitive candidate for colleges in the UNC system, students should aim for a composite score in the high 20s. Of course, higher is better, and for very selective schools such as UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke, an ideal score would be 32-plus. You can check the score ranges of admitted students for every college your child is considering by visiting the Admissions pages of their websites. Pay particular attention to scores in the 50th and 75th percentile of admitted freshmen; this is the target zone for a competitive applicant.

Break down the content

Students who have taken Math 3 or its equivalent should be familiar with all the math covered on the test, although about a third of the problems are considered “difficult.” As for science, it’s more of reading/data interpretation exercise than a test about specific science subjects. The primary challenge of the reading comprehension section is the short amount of time given: 35 minutes to read four 600-word passages and answer 40 questions about them. English, which is the first section students encounter on the ACT, asks students to correct grammar, punctuation and structure errors in five non-fiction texts.

Don’t go with the flow

Students shouldn’t feel they have to do reading or science passages or math questions in order. For kids who are slow readers or perform much better in science or social studies classes than in English, a great strategy is to do those passages first, and save literature — which is the first topic they’ll encounter — for last. Similarly, students should preview all five or six science passages and do the ones that look hardest last. The same applies to math questions. Before answering them, students should label questions as easy, medium and difficult and follow this order. The idea is to get points on the board quickly and generate positive momentum. Finally, they should never leave a question blank, since there’s no penalty for incorrect answers.

Be on the lookout for score reports

Score reports for the state-administered ACT take a lot longer to come back than those of privately administered tests. Six weeks is about average. Scores are distributed in school rather than mailed, so you’ll have less control over seeing the results than if you paid for the ACT. About a month after the test, start asking your junior if they’ve gotten their ACT reports. If their answer is a consistent “no,” check with Student Services. They can tell you if or when reports were distributed, and as a last resort, they’ll have a record of each student’s composite score. I had to go this route when my son claimed he never got his ACT score back. Meanwhile, his twin sister — who attends the same school —produced her report, which she’d received during homeroom, right around the six-week mark. Months later, I found my son’s so-called missing report wadded up in the bottom of his backpack.

What to do next

When you do receive your child’s score report, take time to read the details. Each test taker’s section scores are listed to the right of his or her composite score as column headings, under which you’ll find sections detailing performance on topics covered by the four sections. This data is displayed both numerically and graphically, and also compares your child’s performance to national benchmarks. For students who plan to take the test again, knowing what topics they need to work on most can help them study more efficiently and can also be valuable information for a tutor if they choose to work with one. Juniors have three more opportunities to take the ACT again before senior year starts: April 4, June 13, and July 18.

Consider the SAT

While most students perform about equally on the ACT and SAT, about 30 percent have challenges, strengths or preferences that indicate they should focus on one test over the other. SAT-leaning students might be slower readers who find the ACT’s faster pace intimidating or dislike the science section. Those who favor the ACT like that its math section is entirely calculator-allowed and all multiple choice, whereas the SAT’s math section has parts that don’t permit calculator use and others that require students to complete problems on paper.

One way to help determine which test your child should focus on going forward is to compare their ACT and SAT scores, if possible. You can find lots of charts and tables online that should tell you which test your child performed better on relative to the other one. But don’t overlook your child’s experience with each test. Sometimes they’ll get a much more positive feeling from one test compared with the other. All measures being equal, go with their gut feeling. The SAT is offered in May, June and just before school starts next August.