Education Technology

Tried-and-True Tips for ACT® Math Test Success

Posted 01/22/2021 by Jeff McCalla, St. Mary’s Episcopal School Math Teacher (@jmccalla1)

The ACT® exam is expected to go online this year. Technically, the ACT® has offered digital testing for about five years now, but only in school districts that require it as part of their end-of-course state testing. And, internationally, students have been taking the ACT® online since it was first introduced in 2018. In fact, ACT® provides an online practice test so that you can get the feel of what it is like to take an ACT® exam on the computer. Try it!

You will notice there is a TOOLS drop-down menu containing: a highlighter, a line reader (focuses your attention on one line at a time), answer eliminator (click on an answer to draw a large X over an answer), answer masking (click on an answer to hide it from view), a magnifying icon, and a timer that counts down from 60 minutes (in the top right corner of the screen).

While the option to take the exam online was scheduled to debut in the fall of 2020, those plans were put on hold, much like many things disrupted by COVID-19. At the time, the ACT® said they decided to postpone the introduction of online testing to protect the health and safety of students and test center staff, while focusing on providing a successful paper administration of the exam.

The ACT® is optimistic that their online option, often referred to as Computer Based Testing (CBT), will debut in 2021. The content and format of the computer-based ACT® is the same as the traditional ACT®, just this version is taken on a computer. To be clear: This isn’t the remote version of the test that students can take from home, although those plans are still in the works as well.

When it comes to the CBT, you will still need to register for a test date and take the exam in a test center. The online test will only be available if you have already taken at least one full ACT® on paper. The online test will be for “Section Retesting.” In other words, you don’t have to retake all four sections (Reading, Writing, Math and Science). Instead, you will choose one or more of the sections to retake. Instead of reporting a composite score, you can have your Superscore sent to colleges and universities.

ACT® Superscoring is when you take the best individual section score from any previous time you have taken the ACT®, then average the four best scores to come up with the Superscore. Not all colleges and universities currently accept ACT® Superscoring, so you will need to check before sending to a particular college.

One of the biggest advantages of the computer-based ACT® is that you’ll receive your score in about two business days, compared to over two weeks for the paper test. If you take the Writing section, you’ll receive those results about two weeks after the rest of your results. You can always check the ACT®’s website to see the latest updates.

Besides being a math teacher at St. Mary’s Episcopal School in Memphis, I am also the Test Prep Coordinator, which means I am part of a team of math, science and English teachers that prep students for the ACT® and SAT®. Since becoming the coordinator, our school’s average score has risen from a 28 to a 30 on the ACT®. In fact, we even had two students with perfect scores (36) last year. (Humble test-prep coordinator brag.) I say this because I hope my tips can help you navigate the math section as well, whether you choose to take the test online or on paper:

  1. Show work. Bring a pencil. Just like you would solve a problem in math class, I recommend putting pencil to paper and writing the steps to solve the problem. If it is a geometry problem, draw the figure that is described. I foresee geometry problems taking much longer using the digital format. Instead of being able to write the angle or length of a side directly on the figure, you have to redraw the figure from scratch on your paper and then label appropriately. Some digital tools will be provided: magnifier, highlighter, line reader, answer eliminator and answer masking. None of those tools will help you label angles or sides on a geometric figure.

  2. Use a handheld calculator. An online calculator will be available for you on the digital ACT®. Don’t use it. I use calculator software in my class to teach, and it slows me down. Using a mouse to press keys on the screen is painstakingly slow compared to entering equations on an actual calculator. Time is a big consideration when taking the ACT®. In the math section, there are 60 questions in 60 minutes, which is an average of one minute per question. Since the ACT® revised the math section in December of 2016, they have made the math section more difficult without providing any extra time. Saving time is critical to success. One advantage to taking the digital ACT® is that there is an on-screen timer that is always visible. This visual reminder should help you do a better job of managing the time you have to complete the test.

  3. Use a calculator that you are familiar with. Please don’t take the test with a calculator (online or handheld) that you have never or rarely used. You won’t be able to access all the functionality of the calculator because you certainly won’t have the time to learn how to use the calculator during the test. If you use a TI-84 Plus or TI-Nspire™ CX family graphing calculator in math class, that is the handheld calculator that you should use on the exam. As I understand it, the same ACT® calculator policy applies to the online testing administrations of the ACT®. You can view the ACT®’s calculator policy here.

From a math perspective, I am concerned that students might try to solve too many problems in their head without writing anything down when testing in the digital format. In my experience, this leads to mistakes. This year, my school is employing a hybrid model for teaching, which means I always have some students who are remote learners. Even for those students, I have them print out the tests and show their work with pencil and paper, uploading their work for me to grade. It is important to note that the online test material is the same as the paper version, so the prep work should be the same. Best of luck to students taking the ACT® exam this year, whether online or on paper!

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About the author: Jeff McCalla, author of “TI-84 Plus Graphing Calculator for Dummies,” 2nd ed. (Wiley, 2013) and “TI-Nspire for Dummies,” 2nd ed. (Wiley, 2011), teaches math at St. Mary’s Episcopal School in Memphis. McCalla received the Presidential Award of Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching in 2009. Follow him on Twitter @jmccalla1.