Dispatches from Saturday's ACT: That Math Was Killer



The math section was harder than on the practice tests.

She found the math tricky.

Very difficult math section. Everyone who took it agreed.

She felt the math was the hardest of all four sections.

Following any ACT, we seek our students’ thoughts to gauge their experiences taking the test. Above is just some of the student and parent feedback we received after our students took the October ACT, which was administered this past Saturday.

For any given exam, the feedback can be––and usually is––all over the map. This is understandable, because each student has different strengths and weaknesses, and is thus more likely to find certain sections difficult or easy. It’s less common, though, to get essentially the same commentary from this many students. It’s worth noting that the students represented above have all scored 30+ on the Math sections of official and practice ACTs. So what gives?


Let’s get one pervasive myth out of the way. Many people believe that ACTs administered in certain months are predictably more challenging than ACTs administered in others. Independent statistical calculations show that this is demonstrably false: while any particular exam may be easier or more difficult than another administered in the same year, there is no discernible, predictable year-to-year trend in the difficulty level of a given month’s exam. Period. Moreover, the intelligence of the group of students taking the exam has no effect on the scale produced, which is not constructed as is the typical high school/college “curve”. Full stop.

That said, there are longer-term trends that reveal efforts by the ACT to increase the overall sophistication of the test. This is especially true of the Math section. Anyone who has been involved in prep for the last 10-15 years knows that, taken as a whole, the ACT Math sections of the aughts (2000-2010) were considerably easier than their counterparts of recent years.

This isn’t a coincidence. The ACT itself has announced that it is phasing in higher-level questions, particularly in the area of data and statistics. In addition, we’ve seen more advanced trigonometry and algebra on the test, as well as more frequent questions on topics that students don’t tend to see until precalculus, such as matrices and asymptotes of rational functions. Admittedly, there might be only one question on each of these topics on the exam, but one of each will add up to six or seven question types students may be uncomfortable handling.


It’s essential that students practice with the most recent exams possible, particularly the ones from the last year or two. Several of these are published in the ACT’s Official ACT Prep Guide, 2016-2017 edition. In addition, students can use prep materials closely modeled after the most current tests, like our web-based program. Students who are shooting to score above 30 on the Math should make sure they have a firm grasp of Algebra 2 and at least intermediate trigonometry (with formulas memorized). Students who are looking to score in the mid-high 20s should focus on the first 45 questions of the section, where less advanced problems are likely to show up. Still, they should prepare for trickier algebra and brush up on trigonometry and basic statistics (mean, median, and probability).


Did you or your student(s) take the ACT this past Saturday? Let us know if you agree with our own students by leaving a comment below!

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