Why is the ACT English Test so hard?

The ACT English test is something of  a paradox.  Though it is undeniably the easiest test on which to make significant score gains, it is also the test that causes most students trouble the first time they take it–their low scores prove it. Even students used to getting As in English classes score in the low 20s.  Why?

First of all, many students are confused by the structure of the English test. The test consists of five passages where portions of the text have been underlined.  Each underlined section is accompanied by 4 answer choices: NO CHANGE or three alternatives.  Students must decide whether the underlined portion of the test is correct or needs to be changed.  Most students approach the task by just plugging in the three suggested changes and deciding which one is correct or, in the jargon of many students, “sounds right.”  Students generally have no idea what they are supposed to be looking for.  The long-winded directions given by the ACT are rarely read.  This is actually good because the instructions tell students to read each passage through before starting to answer the questions.  Why is anybody’s guess because this suggestion helps assure that many students never finish the test.  Pacing and timing are critical for scoring well on this high pressure ACT English test.

Timing is important, but so is background knowledge.  To score well, students must have a solid grasp of the rules of standard punctuation and grammar.  They must also recognize and use conventions of writing. Students must know how to identify  correct word choices, evaluate texts for relevant information, and  know when to add or delete information for greatest relevance.

That action plan for raising ACT English socres  begins with teching students that all answers on the English ACT test fall into three categories—grammar, punctuation, and rhetoric (word choice/use).  Once they identify what category of question they are dealing with, students can begin to predict what the correct answer has to be.  For example, a student tackling a puncutation question will utilize different strategies than he/she would for a grammar questions.   The goal is for students to  know what the correct answer has to be  BEFORE they look at the answer choices.  This strategy saves time and helps students avoid the traps set in the incorrect answer choices.   This strategy has raised students scores signficiantly–the record to date is 13 points. 

Once our students learn the  background information they need for the English ACT test, we give them many ACT tests (retired tests) to practice on.  The results  truly are remarkable.  The English ACT test is by far the most predictable and thus the easiest test on which to raise scores.  A significant gain on the English ACT test works wonders for the composite score. 

Written by Dr. Ene-Kaja Chippendale