Numbers, So Many Numbers: ACT Scoring Charts & Scales

Scoring on the ACT is a topic that’s both complicated and extremely important (which is why this is my third blog post that covers it). One important aspect of ACT scoring that we haven’t yet discussed is the chart that converts raw score to scaled score in each section of a given test. Understanding how this ACT scoring chart and scale works and why it differs from test to test can help you approach test day with fully open eyes, which is why I’m going to spend the next several hundred words telling you about it. Buckle up.

ACT Scoring: A quick review of the basics

As you may remember, there are two components of your score in a given section of the ACT: raw score and scaled score.

Raw Score

Your raw score is very straightforward. Each question on the ACT is worth 1 raw score point, and there is no penalty for wrong answers. Because of this, your raw score in a given section is simply the number of questions you answered correctly in that section. If you answered 47/60 questions correctly in the Math section, for instance, your raw score for the section would be a 47.

Scaled Score + Composite Scoring

Your raw score for each section is then converted into a scaled score; scaled scores range from 1 to 36 for all sections of the test. Finally, the four scaled scores that you earn on the four multiple-choice sections of the test are averaged to produce your ACT composite score.

So where do ACT scoring charts come in?

It’s the transition from raw scores to scaled scores that requires the use of the ACT’s scoring charts. But what does this process look like, and how does the ACT generate the charts?

The ACT uses scaled scores to account for the differences in difficulty between test administrations. For instance, let’s say that your older brother took the test last year and got a raw score of 64/75 on the English section. You then take the test this year and get the same raw score. Initially, it might seem like your performances were pretty much identical. But hang on – even though your raw scores were the same, the sections you took were different. If the English section that you received on your administration was more difficult than the one on your brother’s, then it’s fair to say that your performance was more impressive, even though you both got the same raw score (and let’s be honest, you’ve always been smarter than your brother). So now what?

The ACT addresses this using a process called equating. By comparing the difficulty of a given section to the last several years’ worth of data about that section from other test administrations, the ACT can adjust the scoring curve to compensate for differences in difficulty. So in our example, despite the fact that you and your brother got the same raw score, it’s likely that you would have gotten a higher scaled score because your section was harder and therefore would have had a friendlier curve.

Why do the ACT scoring chart and scale differ from section to section of a given test?

Much of this has to do with differences in length between the various sections of the test. The longer a section is, the more different raw scores it’s possible to earn on that section, which means that the results of a large group of students will naturally be distributed across a wider range. That means that dropping a raw score point on the English section, which has 75 questions, will likely cause your performance to suffer less than doing so on the 40-question Science section, since you’ll fall behind a smaller percentage of your fellow test-takers.

This is part of the reason that you’ll frequently see a steeper curve at the top of the shorter sections of the ACT (Reading and Science) than on the longer sections (English and Math). The interaction between the length of the various sections and the relative difficulty of one section of a given type accounts for most of the composition of ACT scoring charts and how they work.

So why does this matter?

Will any of this affect the way you prepare for the test? Probably not significantly. The biggest reason I usually preach this to my students is the psychological support that it can sometimes provide. If you show up on test day and feel like you’re getting absolutely hammered by the Math section, for example, don’t panic! It’s very possible that that Math section is just particularly hard, which likely means that it will have a somewhat friendlier curve. So keep plugging away, focus on avoiding careless mistakes and gleaning all the points that you can, and you may be surprised by the scaled section score that you earn in the end.

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And that pretty much does it for our overview of ACT scoring charts and how they work. Not something that will necessarily inform the way you prep in a significant way, but definitely knowledge that can be helpful in keeping your morale up on test day. There’s also a lot to be said for demystifying the way scoring on the ACT is calculated; after all, the more you know, the less intimidating the test is.

If you’d like more information about scoring on the ACT or any other aspect of the test, head over to Inspirica Pros’ ACT headquarters. Our squad of test gurus would love to help you crush the ACT.