Success, both in tests and life, comes one small step at a time. Unfortunately, these increments of achievement can sometimes seem smaller than they really are, which leads us to overlook their impact. Evaluating ACT scores reminds us of how deceiving certain scores can be.
Today, the ACT is taken by more students than the SAT. Yet, amazingly, people still don’t quite understand how to interpret ACT scores. The problem lies in that weird constricted range: SAT section scores span a full 600 points from 200-800 while ACT section and composite scores cover 36 meager scaled score points. Consequently, test takers can see hundreds of points of improvement from one SAT to another (with the right preparation, naturally), but ACT test takers must content themselves with 2 or 3-point score increases. Which one sounds more impressive?
The SAT/ACT Bell Curve
But the ACT scale deceives us, diminishing the accomplishment an improvement of even one point represents. Consider the following:
- ACT scores are scaled from 1-36, but most students score within a more restricted range. In the past few years, a Composite score of 11 or lower was 1st percentile. A 33 or higher was 99th percentile. So, functionally, most students score within 12-32, which is just a 21-point range. (Actually, 90% of students score between 14 and 27, a range of just 14 points!)
- 21 score points covering 98 percentile points suggests that each score point equates to approximately 4.67 percentile points. However, the impact of each score point changes based on where in the scale it falls. Points in the big part of the bell curve indicate the most substantial percentile point gains while points closer to either end of the curve mean less. for example, a Composite jump from 20 to 21 delivers 7 percentile points. A 26 to a 27 is just 3 percentile points.
- Standardized tests like the ACT are scaled based on the performance of the entire population of test takers. Basically, they’re graded on a massive curve. The ACT in particular is scaled based on the entire cohort of college-bound graduating high school seniors. In 2013, that cohort surpassed 1.8 million students.
- Just 1% of 1.8 million is 18,000. So the average score point improvement of 4.67 percentile points equates to about 84,000 college-bound seniors. This means that improving just one Composite point puts a student ahead of approximately 84,000 students who were originally ahead of him or her.
What does all this mean? The more a student improves on the ACT, the more competition he or she passes:
- 10 percentile points = ~180,000 students
- 20 percentile points = ~360,000 students
- 30 percentile points = almost half a million students!
Obviously, every point on every section of the ACT matters. When you see even small test score gains, think about the amazing accomplishment represented by every single beautiful point!