My ACT Score Dropped: Is this Normal?

Post by Brittany V.

Generally speaking, it’s not that uncommon to see a decrease in your composite ACT score, assuming that the drop is not substantial (4 or more points). Several factors can contribute to a lower composite score on a retest, but there are steps that you can take as a student to help avoid a drop in your score.

What are the odds?

According to a study released by the ACT in 2016, students who took the exam multiple times saw the following results in their composite score:

ACT Score change Increases and Decreases

With 22% of students seeing a drop in their score and 21% seeing no change at all, it is certainly not a guarantee that retaking the exam will yield higher results. That means you have to take preparing for each retest seriously!

These numbers do not take into account how many exams a student has taken in total, but the study did find that the more exams a student takes, the more likely they are to see an increase in the final score. It was also determined that students who started on the lower end of the grading scale were more likely to see a score increase than those who had a higher starting score.

The other major factor was the duration of time between the first exam taken and the final exam:

  • Students who took their first exam sophomore year and their final exam senior year saw an average increase of 2.7 points
  • Students who took their first exam junior year and their final exam senior year saw an average increase of 1.1 points
  • Students who took their first exam and final exam senior year saw an average increase of .6 points

Why do scores drop?

Very often a lower score is not the result of a major issue, but a combination of smaller factors. For starters, every ACT exam is different. The overall subject matter, layout, and style will remain consistent, but the specific questions and passages will change from test to test. Some passages will simply jive better with you than others, and some exams may test a little bit more heavily on concepts that you are confident in. If you are feeling focused, manage your time well, and guess well on the questions you don’t understand, you will see higher section scores and a higher overall composite score. When all of these factors line up on your first exam, you may actually over-perform a bit, which makes the dip in your second score all the more understandable.

Even if that’s not the case and your initial score is a true indication of your skill, it can still be very easy to see a score decrease. Perhaps you run into a passage that you don’t understand well and accidentally mismanage your time. Perhaps you were slightly distracted that day–something as simple as the test center being too hot or cold, an alarm going off outside, or a neighboring student with the sniffles can throw you off for a couple of questions, which can be enough to change your score.

How can a couple of questions affect your score? Because the composite scores are rounded, minor deviations in even one section can have bigger implications than you might think.

Let’s envision a scenario.

On your first exam, you receive a 29 on English, 26 on math, 27 on science, and 30 on reading. This will give you a composite score of 28. But really it’s a 27.5. That makes it all the more easy to see a score decrease. If you retake the exam and just one of the sections sees a decrease of 1 point, that will result in a composite score of 27.

Let’s say, instead, you improve a bit on grammar and bump that section up to a 30. If you see minor fluctuations downward on math and science (which is very common, as it can be the difference in one or two questions) and score a 24 and 26 respectively, but run out of time on the last reading passage and score a 27–your composite score will now be a 26. Even though one of the sections saw an increase, and there were no major decreases in the other sections, it was still enough to lower the composite score by a full 2 points.

How do I avoid a drop in score?

The biggest thing you can do to avoid a score decrease (or stagnation in score) is to give yourself enough time to prepare between your first exam and your final exam. Without dedicating the time to master new material, it’s difficult to pull up the score. It’s also important that you learn from your prior exams. What subject matter do you struggle with? How well are you managing your time? Do you find that you are losing focus towards the end of the test?

Remember, these exams are not just about knowledge of the material; they are also about endurance and test-taking skills. Being able to make smart, time-saving decisions, keeping your energy and focus level high, and knowing how to physically and mentally handle those passages/questions that are just not going your way are all really important skills to learn. These skills are best learned through repeated practice, so it’s important that you take full-length practice exams in between your official exam dates.

As far as what material to review, you want to target the areas that are weaker (although you may want to avoid tackling things that are way out of your comfort zone until you have solidified some of the more manageable concepts). That being said, you don’t want to ignore your strengths! Another benefit of taking full practice exams is that you will be forced to address your weak areas and solidify your stronger ones.

Three times a year, the ACT provides a TIR report, which will allow you to receive a copy of the official exam, along with your answers. These are exceptionally powerful study tools, as you can pinpoint the subject matter, question styles, and passage types that give you the most trouble. You can also locate issues with time management. If you performed well on the majority of a section, but see that most of your mistakes are found towards the end, it’s likely that you either ran out of time or felt pressed for time. You can use this information to more smartly manage your time in the future.

The TIR reports are available for the April, June & December exams. You can order the report online when you register for the exam (or up to five days after the actual exam date). You can order a copy by mail up to 6 months after the exam date.

What should I do now?

The most important thing to do is keep moving forward and simply take another exam! Plenty of students will see their scores drop on a retest, but will go on to see substantial score increases when taking the exam again. Do not lose steam or let a disappointing test result discourage you. The students who double down on their efforts and trust in the process will have the best chances of succeeding!

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