ACT Announces 3 Big Changes

Today, ACT announced changes that will dramatically affect test-takers beginning in September 2020:

  • U.S. students will be able to retake individual sections rather than the test as a whole. These section retests will be on a computer only.
  • U.S. students will be able to choose between paper and computer-based testing. Scores from computer tests will be available within a few days of the test, while paper-based scores will still take a few weeks.
  • All students—both domestic and international—will have the option for ACT to send a formal composite superscore of their best section scores from different test dates.

This is a huge change, and we know you have questions. Here we answer all of them.

1. “What is a section retest?”

A section retest is the opportunity to retake one, two, or three sections without taking the entire ACT. Students can only register for section retests after having taken the entire exam at least once. Additionally, section retests are delivered only via online testing.

2. “What is online testing? Does that mean I can take the test at home or at a location of my choice?”

Online testing means the normal ACT is delivered in a computer-based format rather than via the traditional paper-based format. Students still have to go to formal testing sites to take the exam, and it’s possible there will be fewer computer test sites than the usual paper-based testing locations. The exam structure, format, and content is the same as the paper-based ACT.

3. “What is ACT superscoring? Will I get to choose the section scores and dates that colleges see?”

Superscoring means considering or displaying the highest scores on individual sections across multiple test dates. Some colleges automatically superscore student test results and some don’t. Starting with the September 2020 changes, ACT will be able to present a formalized superscore on the report they send to colleges. However, from what we know now, colleges will still see other section scores and test dates on the report, apart from those included in the superscore. Students won’t necessarily get to pick and choose which section scores they want colleges to see, and colleges will be able to tell which section scores come from a full exam vs. which come from individual section retesting.

4. “Are these changes a good thing?”

We don’t know yet if these changes will benefit students, but for now we’re hopeful. The first step will be for colleges to decide if they accept these changes. The colleges—not ACT—decide whether to allow superscores in their admissions process and if retaking individual sections is ok. 

If colleges accept the changes, it will be great for students who need to make up for one or two bad section scores without investing the time and money for a full exam. We’ve also noticed that it can reduce test anxiety when you only have to focus on one or two sections. But there are potential downsides. First, If you want to retake a single section or two, you have to take the test on a computer. Many students struggle with the transition from paper to computer, so scores may actually go down on a section retest. Second, crafting your test plan is likely to get harder. You’ll have new elements to plan for: Should I retake a section? Which sections? Which sections should I prioritize on a retake? When do I retake them? Will I get to take them in the order of my choice if I do more than one retest in a given day? (ACT has implied this choice might be possible, but it is not yet confirmed.)

5. “Will these changes affect me?”

If you’re a senior (Class of 2020), you’re not affected and don’t need to worry about any of this. But if you graduate in 2021 or later you do get to take advantage of these changes.

If you’re a junior (Class of 2021), still plan on at least 1 or 2 full-length exams this spring. Don’t worry about section retakes until the fall when they are available and we know more about whether your colleges will accept those new scores. You can always make those plans in summer 2020.

If you’re a sophomore or younger (Class of 2022 or later), you don’t need to worry about any of this yet—just focus on school and extracurriculars, and by the time you have to make a decision about testing focus or timeline, we’ll have a lot more information about how this has all shaken out.

If you are Class of 2021 or younger but started testing early, you will be able to use scores going back as early as September 2016 in your superscore, should you choose to submit them.

If you only plan to take the ACT on a school day via state or district testing, you will still have access to section retesting, though details are yet to be released.

No matter which class you are in, be sure to check with your counselor, who knows you and your application timeline best.

6. “What if I live outside the U.S.?”

Individual section retakes will not be available to students outside the U.S. until September 2021. However, you’ll still be able to send colleges an ACT superscore starting in fall 2020 if you live outside the U.S. All international testing, whether full exam or individual section retesting, will remain computer-based (except in some cases of accommodations).

7. “How will this change my prep plan?”

It’s possible these changes will transform prep plans in the future. But as mentioned above, we have to wait and see: we won’t know the best ways students can strategize their planning until we have a sense of how colleges are responding to these changes. In the meantime, follow the tips listed above for your graduation year. And be sure to check with your counselor, who knows you and your application timeline best.

8. “For my first full-length test, should I choose the paper test or the online computer test?”

For now, choose paper. ACT still has released only one computer-based practice test, and students need more material in order to be able to fully prepare for taking the test on screen. If you’ve taken ACT’s only online practice test and felt quite content with your score, then maybe the online test will play to your strengths—but in our experience, most students have an easier time with the paper-based exam.

That said, there are two important caveats to keep in mind:

  1. The section retests are all on a computer.
  2. Providing a computer-based test as an “option” is only ACT’s first step. ACT plans to eventually make students take all tests on a computer. If you are a sophomore or younger, it’s possible you might not have a paper-based option by the time you are testing.

9. “I receive or expect to receive accommodations for a learning disability. What specific impact will these changes have on me?”

ACT has spoken only about the computer-based change and its effect on students with learning disabilities. ACT will strive to provide accommodations on the computer-based test and is currently able to provide testing accommodations on the computer-based test for students with 1.5x extended time who take the test in a single sitting. If a student takes the test over multiple days or has 2x extended time, they will take the test on paper at their home school. ACT has not released specific information about section retesting for students with disabilities, but we are almost certain you will have this option.

10. “I’ve been preparing or planning to prepare for the SAT. Should I switch to the ACT?”

Right now, we recommend you stick with the test you score better on—just as we always have. It’s not clear yet how much section retesting will help you improve your scores, and there’s the added wild card of computer testing if you try to retest a section. Plus, we don’t yet know test locations or availability. It’s not worth switching tests yet with no clear upside.


Last updated October 24. For more information, check our blog over the months to come.
We’ll be posting regular updates as more information comes out. 

And if you have questions about your specific case, we are always here to help.
Talk with an ArborBridge Director of Tutoring at [email protected] who can advise you along the way.