In May, ACT Inc. released a new Red Book, the brand’s flagship review book. The new Red Book incorporates all the well-known tweaks to the test in the past couple of years such as the addition of a dual passage to the reading section and the redesign of the writing prompt. However, the ACT also quietly folded in some significant changes to the new Red Book that we can assume will be reflected on future test administrations: both the math and science sections are significantly harder.
Most experts agree that the ACT has been getting harder since about 2010—especially the science section. But the changes seen in the new Red Book are more pronounced. Here is an overview of the changes:
Math: inclusion of advanced math questions covering topics like integrating vectors, permutations, and factorial notation. Some of these questions would be more at home on the Math II SAT Subject test.
Science: more questions that require outside scientific knowledge (1 per passage instead of 2 per test). Most questions require careful reading of the passage.
The changes reflect a move towards Common Core alignment. ACT Inc and the College Board (makers of the SAT) compete fiercely for state-wide contracts. Increasingly, states want to opt for a test that rewards deeper understanding of academic content and more effectively highlights students’ strengths and deficits. Furthermore, heightening the difficulty allows for a smoother score distribution and more humane curve at the top. The test became so beatable that scores began to crowd at the higher end. With so many students scoring so well, missing just one question could bring a perfect score down to a 33 or 32. A harder test means that one question won’t account for 3-4 points.
What this means for test prep
The addition of harder math questions means that some students should consider pushing back their test date until they are close to finished with Algebra II. Previously about one semester of Algebra II was enough to do well on the test (or at least give it a first shot). Most students don’t take Algebra II until junior year. These changes mean that the June and September tests will likely become more popular for rising seniors. At the same time, it is also worth noting that students do not need to answer every question on the test to reach an impressive score. In fact, students can guess on the 10 hardest math questions and still score in the high 20s. Students still working through Algebra II with aspirations to score well into the 30s will need to allot additional time to learn and practice the more complex math concepts.
Students will also need to spend time achieving mastery of science content. In the past, we were comfortable telling students that it was completely unnecessary to learn or memorize any science content to do well on the science section. This is because there was, at most, two questions that required science content knowledge. Now, students need to have at least working knowledge of cell biology, genetics, reactants, and atomic structure.