Multiple ACT Scores

Perspectives on Multiple Scores

Approaches for Forming Composite Scores Using Multiple Sets of ACT Scores

Over the years, the question of how colleges and universities should use ACT test scores sent to them by applicants who have taken the ACT more than once has come up on numerous occasions. This issue has become more pressing as students are increasingly taking the ACT more than once.

A survey of the current landscape of college admissions highlights the fact that there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” solution. Some postsecondary institutions use a student's most recent score. Others "pick and choose," selecting the best scores a student has earned in each content area over the course of several test administrations and forming a combined highest composite score (superscoring). And still others have different policies in place. 

What is the ACT Composite score?

The ACT consists of four tests: English, mathematics, reading, and science. The score range for each of the four tests is 1–36. The Composite score, as reported by ACT, is the average of the four test scores earned during a single test administration, rounded to the nearest whole number.

If one student receives test scores in English, mathematics, reading, and science of 20, 15, 18, and 17, and another student receives scores of 15, 18, 17, and 20, both students would earn the same composite score—18. Although it can be seen from the subject area scores that one student is stronger in English and reading and the other is stronger in mathematics and science, the two scores represent the same overall level of achievement. ACT therefore considers the two students' Composite scores to be comparable.

Individual forms of the ACT tests are equated, a process that assures, for example, that a score of 19 on one form of the English test represents the same level of achievement as a score of 19 on any other form of the English test, no matter when the forms were administered. Further contributing to the comparability of scores across forms is the standardization of test administration: with the exception of tests administered with extended time for students who qualify for such accommodations, all forms of the ACT are taken within fixed time limits, in prescribed order, and under standard conditions.

What about the writing test?

The ACT also includes an optional writing test. Students who take the optional writing test will receive a single subject-level writing score on a scale of 2-12 and five additional scores: an English Language Arts (ELA) score on a scale of 1–36 and scores for four domains of writing competencies (Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions) on a scale of 2–12. The ELA score is calculated using scores earned on the English, reading, and writing tests in the same administration.

What are postsecondary institutions using as an ACT Composite score for students who have multiple sets of test scores?

A postsecondary institution may adopt a "most recent," "single highest," or "combined highest" approach in defining what ACT Composite score it considers:

  • The most recent Composite score is simply the Composite score obtained from the four test scores on a student's most recent test administration.
  • The single highest Composite score is the highest Composite score a student has obtained in any single test administration.
  • The combined highest Composite score (superscoring) is the score obtained for a student who has tested more than once, by using the highest English, highest mathematics, highest reading, and highest science scores to form an average—regardless of the administrations from which each score was obtained.

For example, John took the ACT three times, earning the following results:

AdministrationEMRSComposite
April 20141920232121
June 20142222202222
October 20142023212121
ACT Superscore2223232223

John earned a most recent Composite score of 21 (on the third test administration in October 2014). He earned a single highest Composite score of 22 (on the second administration in June 2014). The scores from John's second English test (22), third mathematics test (23), first reading test (23), and second science test (22) give him a combined highest composite score (superscore) of 23.

Why would postsecondary institutions prefer one approach over another?

Each approach has its advantages. The most recent Composite score would seem to reflect the examinee's current level of achievement more accurately than the other approaches. The single highest Composite score, on the other hand, allows for the fact that students do not always perform at their best. If, for example, a student had a poor night's sleep, suffered a sudden attack of nerves, or was preoccupied with a personal problem, the student's most recent test score may reflect his or her abilities less accurately than higher scores earned on an earlier test date. Use of the combined highest composite score might be defended on similar grounds.

Which approach does ACT recommend?

We believe that individual postsecondary institutions should decide which approach is best for them as they are in the best position to understand their unique needs and the context within which the scores are being used. 

With that in mind, ACT does recommend some additional stipulations:

1.    Consistency. Whatever score use policy an institution chooses, that policy should be applied consistently to all applicants.  Concerns of fairness arise if one score use policy (most recent score) is applied to some groups of applicants (e.g., females, ACT test takers) and a different score use policy (superscore) is applied to other groups of applicants (e.g., males, SAT test takers).

2.    Concordance.  For institutions that receive both ACT and SAT scores from applicants, the 2018 ACT-SAT concordance should be used to convert SAT scores to ACT scores and vice versa.   Given the change in the score scale for the 2016 SAT, using the previous ACT-SAT concordance puts ACT test takers at an unfair disadvantage.

These recommendations apply not only to colleges and universities but also to scholarship granting agencies or any institution that uses ACT and SAT scores to make important educational decisions.

ACT’s Position on Superscoring

We want to clear up some market confusion as it pertains to superscoring.  In the past, ACT has discouraged the use of superscoring as there were concerns that superscoring may overstate some students' abilities (in testing terminology, to "capitalize on positive measurement error"). To test that hypothesis, ACT recently conducted a study on the validity and fairness of different scoring methods.  Contrary to our expectations, the results showed that superscores were just as predictive (actually slightly more predictive) of first-year grades as other scoring methods (recent, average, highest administration).  Moreover, superscoring resulted in the least amount of differential prediction associated with the number of times a student tests. Interestingly, we found that first-year grades for students who tested more often was underpredicted even when prediction models were based on superscores.That is, retesters performed better in college than what was expected based on their test scores.  And this prediction error was minimized when superscores were used as compared to the other scoring methods. If superscores reflected positive measurement error – that is, an overestimate of one’s true achievement level – then superscores would predict students to earn higher grades in college than what they actually earned, and this overprediction would increase as the number retesting occasions increase. However, the results of the study suggested exactly the opposite.

Why is this the case? One hypothesis is that superscores and number of retesting occasions reflect not only academic preparation but also a motivational component. Specifically, the student who is willing to forgo multiple Saturdays to sit for a multiple-hour test with the hope of maybe increasing his score is also the student who is likely to ask questions in his college courses, visit his professor during office hours, and take advantage of any extra credit opportunities to ensure the best possible grade. An overview of this study is provided in the Higher Education Research Digest 2017.

Based on this research, ACT supports the use of superscoring in making college admissions decisions.

[1]Research on the SAT found similar findings pertaining to superscoring (Boldt etal., 1986).

Which approach does the NCAA use?

The NCAA uses the maximum sum of test scores, essentially a variant on the combined highest composite score, as part of the determination of whether students meet the association's initial-eligibility standards.

Should Students take the ACT more than once?

Students who have taken additional relevant coursework since they last tested may wish to retest, since they have reason to suppose they will do better next time. Students who believe their previous scores do not accurately reflect their achievement may also wish to retest. If, for example, they were ill or otherwise indisposed when tested, or if they were unfamiliar with testing procedures, it is reasonable to expect that they may do better on retesting.