How ACT Math is Getting More Difficult

Standardized tests like the SAT and ACT continue to evolve, trying to capture how well prepared today’s students are for the academic challenges of 21st century higher education.  While some of these changes are widely publicized, some are quietly adopted with little fanfare.  Anyone familiar with the ACT math section has likely noticed one of these silent shifts in the last couple years as the test has become noticeably more difficult.

Breaking Down the ACT

The ACT Math test consists of 60 questions in 60 minutes, allowing the test-taker approximately one minute per question.  These questions are broken down into eight sub-scores as follows:

1. Preparing for Higher Mathematics — Using algebra as a general tool for dealing with equations. Five sub-sections:57-60%
2. Number and Quantity — Working with different kinds of number systems and number forms, including real, complex, integer, matrices, vectors, exponents, etc.7-10%
3. Algebra — Working with many different kinds of equations to solve, graph, and model different situations. May include linear, polynomial, exponential, and radical expressions, as well as systems of equations and matrices.12-15%
4. Functions — Being able to represent and apply various functions.12-15%
5. Geometry — Applying the math of shapes and solids, including questions related to congruence, trigonometric ratios, understanding conic sections, etc.12-15%
6. Statistics and Probability — Analyzing data collection, understanding relationships within data, describing the center and spread of distributing, and calculating probabilities8-12%
7. Integrating Essential Skills — Application of fundamental skills, most of which were probably learned before high school. (Percentages, basic geometry, different ways to express numbers, averages, etc.) While information being tested may be more basic than that found in other questions, it may be combined and applied in more complex, less obvious, ways.40-43%
8. Modeling — Modeling questions are pulled from the various other categories (and are counted in at least one of the other categories for scoring purposes) and test the ability to produce, understand, and improve various models.+25%

Questions in all of the sections are becoming steadily more difficult, with matrices, conic sections, permutations, vectors, and other advanced concepts making more frequent appearances.
Going Broad
While the latest revision to the SAT sharpened its focus with a heavy emphasis on algebra (~60% of the test), the most recent changes to the ACT seem to move the other direction, broadening the types of questions covered by the test. This appears to be especially true for the hardest level of questions. In fact, the range of content covered in the ACT in many ways more closely resembles the types of material included in the SAT Math II subject test than either the SAT or SAT Math I tests.
Strategies for Success
While it’s impossible to predict exactly what will appear on any specific ACT exam, there are a few tactics that can help you successfully tackle the more difficult math section. First, consider delaying when you take the ACT slightly, if possible, to make sure you have completed at least Algebra II before the exam. The very best test preparation is a solid understanding of mathematics gained over time through coursework.

Next, make sure you are using up-to-date test prep materials. A study guide put together even just a couple of years ago will be unlikely to include sufficiently challenging questions to adequately prepare. Even if your test prep materials are new, if they are based exclusively on questions that have appeared on previous tests (rather than incorporating original questions that match the current level of difficulty on the test) they are also unlikely to be appropriately difficult.

Finally, during the actual test be strategic with how you use your time. Questions typically increase in difficulty as the section progresses, so, if possible, work through the earlier questions as quickly as possible to leave more time for more complex questions later in the section. While you don’t want to overthink questions that appear early on, do be wary of seemingly “too easy” questions further in.
The Bright Side
While nobody looks forward to more challenging math, there is a bright side to the changes. As the difficulty has increased, the math scoring has also started to become a little more forgiving. The increased breadth and difficulty seems to be spreading out the distribution of scores at the top, meaning instead of dropping straight from, say, 36 to 32 after missing a single question, intermediate high score (like 33, 34, and 35) are more likely to occur.