The Ultimate Guide to ACT Test Statistics

You may know that ACT (original abbreviation for American College Testing) is an alternative to the SAT test. You may also know that you have an option of taking both the ACT and the SAT as means to measure your high school achievements and as tools to get into college. But how much more do you know about the ACT? This article may prove to be your ultimate guide to ACT test statistics, with information about the test, the test scores and how those scores are interpreted.

Everett Franklin Lindquist administered ACT for the first time in 1959 as competition against the SAT. Historically, the ACT consisted of four tests, including math, reading, English and science reasoning. An optional writing test was added to the ACT in February 2005, and the SAT offered the same option in March that year.

As of 2007, all four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. now accept the ACT as well as the SAT. The SAT historically had dominated schools on both East and West coasts, while the ACT dominated in Illinois and Colorado (both states incorporated the ACT as a mandatory test in 2001). While students, in the past, often were denied acceptance at various schools for taking the ACT rather than the SAT, colleges have broadened their acceptance in efforts to gain more students across a broader geographic region.

SAT takers dropped by nearly 10,000 students in 2007, while the ACT test increased by more than 20,000 students. And, while SAT national average scores dropped, ACT scores rose significantly (see test takers, state by state in 2007). It is unknown whether marketing, acceptance or changes in tests are to blame for the changes in these numbers.

Subject test scores in all four sections of ACT range from 1 to 36. The English, mathematics, and reading tests also have subscores that range from 1 to 18. The composite score equals the average of all four tests. Students who take the writing test receive a writing score that ranges from 2 to 12, a “combined English/writing score,” based upon the writing and English scores, ranges from 1 to 36 and one to four comments on the essay from the essay scorers. The writing score does not affect the composite score. The test may include an experimental section that may be a short version of any of the four major sections.

On the ACT, each question correctly answered is worth one raw point. Unlike the SAT, there is no penalty for marking incorrect answers on the multiple-choice part of the test. Although the ACT often is considered easier than the SAT, the time allotted to take the ACT is shorter. The SAT is structured so that the test taker has about one minute to answer each question; the ACT allots, for instance, only 45 minutes for a 75-question English test. The highest possible ACT score is 36, compared to the SAT 1600.

The main difference between the SAT and the ACT is that the latter test measures the student’s knowledge learned in high school, whereas the SAT tries to determine “innate” abilities. But, the difficulty in the ACT comes from its questions that require more specific knowledge of any given subject. The ACT requires knowledge, the SAT requires test-taking skills.

According to ACT, a record 1.3 million high school seniors of the 2007 graduating class took the ACT test and earned an average composite score of 21.2 on the college admission and placement exam, up from 20.8 in 2003 and from 21.1 in 2006. Like the SAT, the ACT also employs a percentile based upon the scores. For instance, if you score a 24 on your ACT composite score, this score implies that your percentile score is 75, or that you scored better than 75 percent of the other students who took the ACT test that same year. These percentiles are broken down by test as well as pulled together in a composite.

While many critics have accused the SAT designers of cultural bias toward the white and wealthy with their questions and the cost of the test, the ACT — while still costly — has been regarded as the underdog’s hero. In fact, ACT provided $6 million worth of free exams in 2007 and budgeted $8 million in free exams for the fiscal year ending in August 2008. Additionally, ACT places an emphasis on serving students with disabilities.

But, in 2007, the Des Moines Sunday Register uncovered salaries paid to the ACT ‘s non-profit board of directors only to learn that those salaries — about $520,000 annually — surpassed the compensation of about 98 percent of nonprofit boards across the U.S. If the IRS deems that a nonprofit is paying an amount in excess of reasonable compensation, the IRS may impose intermediate sanctions on both the individual receiving that salary and the organizational managers who approved it.

Note that it is possible to achieve a perfect score on the ACT, while this is a very rare occurrence for the SAT. Often, those higher scores occur after the student takes the test for the second time. The odds of a higher score with the second test should increase, simply because the test and the testing environment becomes more familiar.

To learn more about ACT scores and percentiles, what they mean, how colleges use them, we’ve prepared a list of links for your convenience. All the links listed below are current, and include some of the latest test scores as well as some historic numbers. This list is categorized by scores and percentiles, and each link is listed alphabetically within those categories.

ACT provides many of the following graphs and information. You can keep up with their yearly accounts at the Web site, with 2009 ACT National and State Scores offered for 2010.

Test Score Information

  • 2009 Average ACT Scores by State: You can sort the data in this table by column heading or select a sate to view its complete High School Profile Report in PDF. This table is offered by ACT, and they also offer 2008 and 2007 average scores.
  • Average ACT English and Writing Scores by Race/Ethnicity and Gender for students who took ACT Writing [PDF]: Asian American and white American students on average scored highest on English, writing and a composite of both subjects. Females, nationally, scored higher than men, especially in writing.
  • Average ACT Scores and Average ACT Score Changes by Common Course Patterns [PDF]: This graph measures scores across all students as well as comparisons by gender.
  • Average ACT Composite Scores for Racial/Ethnic Groups by Post-Secondary Educational Aspirations [PDF]: The ACT places an emphasis on educational goals. This graph provides information that shows those aspirations by ethnic group.
  • ACT Scores for Ivy League Admissions: This article provides the rundown on what most top universities expect from ACT scores. Use the ACT Comparison Charts link to learn more about specific colleges. However, you might want to check with individual colleges’ Web sites to learn more (see two examples below).
  • Ivy League Average ACT Scores: This short list shows the average ACT score required by most Ivy League universities.

Percentile Rank Information

  • College Readiness Percents by Common Course Patterns [PDF]: This graph breaks the percentiles down by the four tests, comparing the results on a national scale.
  • Percent of Students Meeting ACT College English Readiness Benchmark Scores by Race/Ethnicity [PDF]: This graph shows that American white students are more prepared for college than other ethnic groups (77), with Asian Americans almost equal to the task (76).
  • Percent of Students Meeting ACT College Math Readiness Benchmark Scores by Race/Ethnicity [PDF]: This graph shows that Asian Americans are far more ready than any other ethnic group in mathematics.
  • Percent of Students Meeting ACT College Reading Readiness Benchmark Scores by Race/Ethnicity [PDF]: This graph, which measures reading readiness, shows that white and Asian Americans are basically equal to this task (62 and 61 respectively).
  • Percent of Students Meeting ACT College Science Readiness Benchmark Scores by Race/Ethnicity [PDF]: Once again, Asian Americans pull ahead at 42 with science readiness.
  • Percent of Students Meeting ACT College Composite Readiness Benchmark Scores by Race/Ethnicity [PDF]: When comparing a composite, Asian Americans show a 36 percent readiness for college, compared to white American students at 28, which is the next-highest rank.

Other Comparisons and Notes

  • ACT/SAT Comparison: This page compares the ACT to the SAT by fees, scores and content.
  • ACT and SAT Concordance Tables: Before 2005, ACT and the College Board had periodically produced concordance tables to assist admission officers who wanted to understand how students of comparable ability would score on the two college entrance examinations. Given the changes to both tests, the College Board and ACT are now providing updated concordance tables that are based on the current versions of the two tests.
  • College Navigator: Use this government search engine to find colleges and to learn more about their test policies and statistics. You may learn, for instance, that a college has “an open admission policy. Contact the institution for more information.” This means that you do need to contact the college well before test dates to learn whether or not they use SAT or ACT scores for first-year admissions. Other colleges, such as Stanford Medical Center, require SAT/ACT scores for admission.
  • Colleges Acknowledge SAT and ACT Score Cut-Offs in Admissions: The New York Times reported in 2009 that of those colleges that accept the SAT, one in five said they used particular scores on the test as a “threshold” for admission, at least in some cases; among those using the ACT, one in four described similar cut-offs.
  • Distribution of Planned Educational Majors for All Students by College Plans [PDF]: The ACT places a great emphasis on future goals and career plans. This graph shows ethnic group choices broken down by career.
  • Harvard Requirements: Harvard requires scores from the SAT or the ACT (with Writing) plus three SAT subject tests, showing no preference between the SAT I and ACT. Test scores among accepted freshmen show: SAT score (25/75 percentile) — 2080-2370; ACT score (25/75 percentile) — 31-35.
  • Stanford First-Time, First-Year Admission: This information supplies just one example of how colleges might use ACT in the future. Stanford is using ACT test scores for 2011 admission, which were due in January 2010. Stanford is not using the essay component, but requires the ACT with writing component. They also include scores and percentiles of freshmen applications for both the ACT and the SAT. Note that GPA is a larger factor in acceptance, with 90.13 percent holding a 3.75 or higher GPA.
  • SAT and ACT Score Comparison [PDF]: This chart shows comparative scores between the two tests as well as a chart that shows the differences between the tests.