ACT Scoring: How Does It Work?


Since today marks the date of the October ACT, it’s important to remember just how scoring works for the ACT. I will go through some of the basics that you may not fully understand, and I will dispel some common myths.

How does the ACT composite score work?

The “composite score” for the ACT is the average of the English, Math, Reading, and Science section scores. Usually colleges will require students to get a specific composite score (or higher) for admissions benefits such as auto-admits, scholarships, or specific major placements. The section score range and composite score range are both 1-36.

The highest composite score for the ACT--i.e., a perfect score--is 36. The highest section scores are 36 for English, 36 for Math, 36 for Reading, and 36 for Science. Some colleges require students to get certain ELA and STEM section scores, such as 25 for English & Reading and 25 for Math & Science.

  • English section score: 1-36

  • Math section score: 1-36

  • Reading section score: 1-36

  • Science section score: 1-36

  • Composite is average of four section scores: 1-36

How is the ACT Essay scored?

Note: The ACT calls the essay section the “Writing” section.

The essay is an optional part of the test, which is administered after the English, Math, Reading, and Science sections. Two readers grade the Essay, whose score includes four domains: Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions.

Both graders score each domain 1-6; those scores are added together to make a 2-12 score. Finally, the 2-12 domain scores are averaged. A perfect score on the Essay is a 12. The Essay score has no effect on the composite ACT score.

NOTE: The ACT Essay score must always be included with the composite ACT score. You cannot mix and match Essay scores with the composite scores of other official tests. For example, you cannot use the Essay score of an official September ACT with the composite score of an official December ACT.

What is the difference between raw and scaled ACT scores?

Before we get into how exactly ACT normalizes ACT scores across tests, let’s first remember how raw scores and scaled scores work on the ACT.

The raw score is simply how many questions you answered correctly out of the total in a section. For example, a perfect raw score in English is 75, in Math is 60, in Reading is 40, and in Science is 40. No matter which ACT you take, you can only get these raw scores:

  • English: 0-75

  • Math: 0-60

  • Reading: 0-40

  • Science: 0-40

A scaled score is derived from the raw score. A 75 raw score on English is a 36 scaled score; a 60 raw score on Math is a 36 scaled score; a 40 raw score on Reading is a 36 scaled score; a 40 raw score on Science is a 36 scaled score. The scaled score is the number that colleges see.

What is the idea behind equating vs. curving ACT scores?

Many people incorrectly state that ACT curves its tests. People also wrongly state that the ACT can be “gamed” by taking it at a certain time of year. These statements are myths, and like any myth, they can be dispelled with the facts.

ACT doesn’t curve its scores, not in the way that curves normally operate. Test scores on not based on comparing student performances across a single test. Your score is simply your score, regardless of how other students perform.

Now, ACT does go through a process, one that is not entirely clear, which is called “equating.” This process is where the scaled scores come into play. Since no one test is made exactly like another, ACT needs a way to ensure that test scores on one test equal those from another. Since there may be more difficult questions on one test than on another, ACT equates each official test with those that have come before it.

Here is where the curving myth arises: since the equating process requires ACT to have received all of the test scores, students believe that ACT is using student performance as the benchmark for how it converts raw scores into scaled scores. While ACT has not expressly provided the ins and outs of its process, know that it wants the student scores to affirm what it has created.

In other words, ACT wants to know that hard questions are, in fact, hard and that easy ones are, in fact, easy. Otherwise, it will correct the raw-to-scaled score conversions, which should have been roughly determined even before the official student scores come back.

If you aren’t buying that this is how ACT handles different tests, then look at the scoring guides of different ACT tests.

What is superscoring vs. regular scoring?

Superscoring is a method that some colleges use when reviewing your ACT scores. Instead of simply accepting or considering your highest composite test score (i.e., the “regular scoring” process), colleges may consider the highest section scores across multiple official tests that you have taken. This is called “superscoring.”

For example, let’s say you have the following ACT scores:

July ACT

  • English: 36

  • Math: 34

  • Reading: 36

  • Science: 32

October ACT

  • English: 34

  • Math: 36

  • Reading: 32

  • Science: 36

A college that superscores would consider your ACT score “perfect” because you got 36 English (June ACT), 36 Math (October ACT), 36 Reading (July ACT), and 36 Science (October ACT).

How do you know which colleges superscore? See what the admissions sites say. Here is a sample of what some of the Ivy League colleges state:

  • MIT: “If you take the same test (SAT, ACT, or an SAT Subject Test) multiple times, we will consider the highest score achieved in each section.”

  • University of Chicago: “We superscore test scores, meaning that only your best testing results—your highest sub-scores and the best result of the two testing options, if you've taken both the SAT and ACT— will be considered in the review of your application.”

As you can see, the scoring is not that complicated. However, what counts more than anything else when you take an official exam is just how prepared you are. And while going to school and doing well in your classes is an important first time to getting a good score, it often isn’t enough to do well. Good practice makes perfect.

[Want to know more about SAT scoring?]

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