ACT in a nutshell

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In the 1950s, as more Americans began enrolling in colleges and universities, most states had their own college-entrance tests.

In 1959, the ACT debuted as a centralized effort in 20 states, mostly in t he Midwest. In 1960, the test was given in all 50 states for the first time. Most colleges and universities in the Midwest require the ACT, while those on the East and West coasts often prefer its “cousin,” the SAT.

Last year, 53 percent of Chicago’s juniors took the ACT, posting an average score of 17.3 out of 36; statewide, 56 percent of juniors took the test, and scored an average 21.5.

At Chicago State University, for example, the median ACT score among its students is 17.6.

At the highly selective University of Chicago, half of incoming freshmen scored between 28 and 32, with a quarter falling on either side of that range.

The four-part test is revamped every few years based on surveys that ask high school teachers, and college and university professors who teach mostly freshmen, to rank the importance of certain skills in math, English and science.

This year’s math test has been beefed up from 40 to 60 questions, and covers trigonometry for the first time. Overall, says ACT spokesperson Kelley Hayden, there are more questions at both the top and the bottom of the difficulty scale, reflecting the importance of ‘basics’ as well as complex problem-solving ability.

The science test includes more chemistry and biology-oriented questions, and the English section has for the last decade emphasized sentence development and structure rather than punctuation and basic grammar.

Work Keys, a six-year-old test of workplace-related skills, was developed in the late 1980s and first administered in 1994. It includes separate tests that measure teamwork, applied math, applied technology, reading for information, listening, writing and locating information. Tennessee, Ohio, Mississippi and West Virginia regularly use all or part of Work Keys in their testing programs, Hayden says.

EXPLORE, a test for 8th- and 9th-graders, and PLAN, a test for 10th-graders, are considered “pre-tests” to the ACT.

Both include tests of reading, math, science reasoning and English, as well as sections aimed at identifying students’ interests and strengths and matching them to broad career areas. PLAN also forecasts students’ potential ACT scores on the basis of their PLAN scores.