Why the ACT English Test is Such a Big Deal
Written Dr. Ene-Kaja Chippendale
Why the English Test on the ACT is Such Big Deal!Students who look at the ACT English Test for the first time are often taken aback because they’ve never seen a test in this format before. They are confronted with a page divided into two columns: one half of the page includes a narrative with parts underlined and the other half has numbered questions, each followed by four answer choices. Students find they have 45 minutes to answer 75 questions that relate to five passages.
The directions the ACT gives students are ponderous and complicated. On a test where timing is everything, students who stop to read the directions can waste several precious minutes being told that the test requires them to choose the answer “that best expresses the idea,” “makes the statement appropriate for standard written English,” or “is worded most consistently with the style and tone of the passage as a whole.” Huh? becomes a frequent response.
Even worse is the direction that tells test takers to “read the passage through once before you begin to answer the questions that accompany it.” This is a totally nonsensical suggestion that only wastes time.
As students begin working through the test, they tend to rely on one strategy: plug in each answer choice and hope one “speaks” to them. They have no idea what the test covers. Predictably, many students answer by the seat of their pants and pick the answer that “sounds right.” Not a good plan for a high score.
In reality, the English test is the easiest test on which to raise a score because it is totally predictable. Once students learn to read the passage as editors who are looking for mistakes in punctuation, grammar, and word choice (rhetoric), they are on their way. The ACT test writers know that many students can be easily confused: isn’t the longest answer the best? My teacher is always telling me to write longer, more complex sentences. Actually, no. On the ACT, the shortest, most succinct answer is the correct choice.
How about that punctuation? I think any sentence is improved by a comma—I don’t know why, but I’m sure that’s true. Nope. Once again, the ACT plays to students’ weaknesses. Many students still struggle to identify a sentence. Others have no idea how to use a comma, a colon, or a semicolon, never mind a dash or parentheses. When do you use “he” or “him”? Remind me, is it “who” or “whom”? And the list of predictable questions goes on…and on.
Students who review rules of punctuation and grammar and learn how to comprehend questions increase their English score significantly, more so than on any other ACT subject test. We see that as we prep students for the ACT, and the English increase is anywhere from 2-12 points. A six-point gain is very common. That’s how predictable the English test actually is! That’s why students need to pay special attention to preparing for it. Their score increase in English lifts their composite ACT score. It’s that simple.