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       By Dan Marlin

Recently, the ACT announced an update to its Reading section. One of the four reading passages might now include a graphic or two and ask students a few questions about how to interpret the graphic(s), either in isolation or in combination with details from the passage. The ACT is calling this mix of graphics and questions “Visual Qualitative Information” (VQI) problems. This change will go into effect “in 2021,” meaning students might have seen VQI questions as soon as the July 17 ACT. More detail is in this link, at the bottom of the page.

The ACT is careful about its language in its updated description of the Reading section, saying one of the passages may contain graphics. Therefore, it’s possible that not all of the upcoming ACTs will include such questions. Unfortunately, right now, we only have one example of VQI problems, from the ACT’s website itself; the latest prep book the ACT released includes previous exams, none of which have graphics questions on the Reading section. And the next Test Information Release (TIR) date isn’t until December, so we’ll have to rely on our students, as well as others in the field, to gather more intelligence on the extent of this development on the July, September, and October ACTs.

If you’re familiar with the PSAT or SAT, these kinds of questions may sound familiar. Because the SAT lacks a dedicated science section, it includes a handful of charts and graphs for interpretation in each of its four sections (Reading, Writing, No-Calculator Math, and Calculator Math). Therefore, another curiosity is how this change relates to the ACT Science section, which is where the ACT has stashed such interpretation questions in the past. It is certainly too early to know whether this change presages the eventual elimination of the ACT Science or if it is an altogether separate tweak to make the ACT a little bit more like the SAT. (The two tests are in a constant race for test-takers and state contracts, so the ACT may view the addition of VQI questions as a way to make it more similar to the SAT and capture some market share.) 

Most of the ACT Reading section should remain quite consistent, as it has over the past several years: the passages always proceed in the same order, and there will always be one “double” or “paired” passage (a much more seismic change made in the mid-2010s). Ultimately, though, this update functions as a good reminder that the ACT may shift in subtle ways over time, from exam to exam. We drill our students on the typical structures and question types they’ll see, but we also teach them to be flexible with anything that looks unfamiliar. VQI problems might just require some adaptability, at least in the immediate future.

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