How much can an ACT score drop by? How likely is it your ACT score will decrease if you retake the test? Or are you wondering why your ACT score went down on a recent retake?
Find out how likely an ACT decrease is, how big that ACT score decrease could be, and how to make sure your score goes up, not down! Read on if you have a retake in store.
How Likely Is an ACT Score Decrease?
The ACT has provided some data about how likely score decreases are when you retake the test. Of the students who took the ACT more than once:
- 57% increased their Composite score
- 21% had no change in their Composite score
- 22% decreased their Composite score
Stats via the ACT Student website.
So the odds are your ACT score will go up, but that is far from a guarantee. In fact, the odds are roughly 55/45 between your score going up or your score staying the same or decreasing. So if you retake the ACT, it’s almost as likely your score will stay the same or decrease rather than increase. This means you absolutely can’t slack when studying for a retake!
Reasons for an ACT Composite Score Decrease
The reasons your ACT score could decrease will depend on how much it decreases by. There is, after all, a big difference between going from a 28 to a 27 than a 28 to a 23. We'll discuss the reasons behind different ACT score drops.
Statistically Likely Drops (Up to 3 Composite Points Down)
A small step down for your score, a giant step down for your ego.
Although you’re probably eager to discover the reason your score went down on your retake, it may be that you got lucky the first time you took the ACT. Maybe the first test went especially well for you – you did better with timing than normal, picked up extra points with guesses, had a great test center, and felt pretty comfortable with all of the reading passages and questions. Your first ACT score might have actually been a bit higher than you actually should have scored, so the second test is just a correction of your first score.
However, it's also quite possible to run into worse luck on your retake. Even slight score changes could cause your overall composite score to decrease. For example, even if you did slightly better on two sections of the ACT, if you ran into bad luck and struggled with the two other sections, your composite could decrease.
As an example, check out the following two hypothetical ACT scores. Even though this student improved their English and Science scores, bigger drops in Reading and Math caused their overall composite score to decrease.
It’s not unheard of at all to see drops like 27 to 24 Math or 29 to 25 Reading. By losing just 4 or 5 raw points on each section, you could see a decrease like that. And you could easily lose that many raw points if you lose track of timing, or run into a tough Reading passage you don’t gel with, or Math questions you find more challenging. In short, even small changes in luck could have a big effect on your score.
Also, did you study enough? The less you study for your retake, the more susceptible you’ll be to bad luck, struggling with timing, or having a hard time with test questions. It may be you studied a bunch before you took the ACT for the first time, but underestimated the time you would need to spend for the retake, so your score decreased.
And how did you study? Were you timing yourself carefully? Analyzing your mistakes? Focusing on weak spots? If you just lazily reviewed some concepts you missed the first time or went through practice sections without recreating test conditions, your studying might not have been effective enough to raise your score.
Finally, think about outside factors: Was your test center significantly worse the second time around? Were there unclear instructions from the proctor? Was your test center too hot or cold? (Read more about bad test centers and what to do about them here). Or were you sick or otherwise unfocused on your retake day? (Remember to also consider the reverse: were conditions especially good on your first ACT date and just average on your second one?)
Any one of these factors or a combination of them could easily be enough to cause a composite score to decrease by 1 to 3 points.
Large Score Drops (More than 3, Less than 5 Composite Points)
You dropped the ball.
If your ACT composite falls by this much, you likely have a more serious issue that you need to identify.
Maybe you’re using a new strategy that just isn’t working for you – like trying to read through the reading and science passages first before reading the questions or plugging in the answers instead of solving with algebra on the math section. If a strategy is causing you to lose more than 5 raw points on a section, that could bring down your score enough to make your composite fall by 3 to 5 points.
It's possible you didn't study at all (or only studied a little) before your ACT retake, thinking you could wing it. This would leave you wide open to struggling with timing, unexpectedly tough questions, or other bad luck on test day.
Or maybe you were particularly sick or unfocused on your second test day, or your test center had serious problems. Regardless, you need to figure out what went wrong before attempting another retake!
Very Large Drops (More than 5 Composite Points)
A very serious issue is occurring if your score drops by this much. Maybe something was egregiously wrong with your test center, you filled in answers one line off for a whole section, or you were particularly sick or unfocused.
Okay, so a 7-point ACT score drop probably isn't quite as dramatic as the Hindenburg disaster, but it may feel that way to you!
First of all, examine your composite and section scores to see where the drops were. This will help you figure out where the problem occurred. Compare these two hypothetical students to see what we mean:
This student experienced big point drops in every section, leading to a much lower final composite score. Due to the drops in all sections, something must have happened with overall test strategy, for instance struggling with pacing or using a bad guessing strategy. It's also possible the test center was particularly bad, or the student was feeling quick sick. In short, the student needs to figure out what it was that caused their overall performance to suffer so much.
Test 2: English 28, Math 15, Reading 29, Science 28 (Composite: 25)
This student had a super large drop on one section (Math 30 to Math 15) and smaller, statistically likely drops on other sections. This means that, obviously, something went way wrong on math – maybe on this section the student started bubbling their answers one line off, resulting in a slew of wrong answers. It’s also possible that maybe the student implemented a new strategy on Math that turned out to be disastrous.
But in this case, since the other sections weren’t affected, it’s less likely the problem was due to the test center, a bad overall test-taking strategy, or illness. This student needs to figure out what went wrong in Math.
Finally, if you experience a 5-point composite drop or larger, you should consider the possibility your test was mis-scored. If you can't figure out any other logical reason your score would have dropped by so much, you might consider ACT’s hand-scoring service to find out for sure.
How to Prevent a Score Decrease
Given that your ACT composite score could easily decrease or remain the same if you retake the test, how can you make sure your score goes up? Follow our advice to make sure you don't waste your ACT retake.
1. Focus on Your Weak Points
When studying for your retake, spend plenty of time studying for the section (or sections) you got the lowest scores on the first time. You want to make sure you get the points you missed the first time around.
For example, if your Math score was a 24 and all your other sections were between 28 and 30, you would definitely want to make sure to improve your Math score to improve your overall composite. If you can make sure you earn points you missed on your first test, you’re reducing the chances of a score decrease.
Not sure where to start? Here are some resources to help tackle a weak subject area or two.
- The Best Prep Books for ACT English
- The Top 9 ACT English Strategies You Should Use
- More guides from grammar rules to diction errors
- How to Stop Running Out of Time on ACT Math
- Plugging in Answers: A Crucial Strategy
- More guides on everything from fractions to statistics
- The Best Way to Practice ACT Reading Questions
- The Four Types of ACT Reading Passages You Should Know
- How to Stop Running Out of Time on ACT Reading
- More fine-grained guides from comparison passages to author intent
- A Complete Guide to ACT Science
- 9 Reasons You're Missing ACT Science Questions
- 11 ACT Science Strategies You Should Be Using
2. Don’t Neglect Your Strong Areas
Even if you fix your weak spots, it’s not unlikely that your highest section could go down if you don't study for it. In other words, think of this as preserving the points you earned on your first round of the ACT.
Even if you manage to raise the score on your weakest section, if your other section scores decrease – by even just a point or two! – your composite could decrease or stay the same. Check out the hypothetical ACT scores below to see what we mean:
Even though this student brought up Math, their lowest section, from 24 to 27, the slight score decreases on other sections caused their composite score to fall. This means you need to be practicing for the entire test, even your strong sections, to guarantee a composite score increase.
Being prepared for the test as a whole is the best way to shield yourself from ACT composite decreases. So how can you prepare for the ACT as a whole? Use complete practice tests, time yourself strictly, and understand how the test is scored. Also look into getting a strong overall ACT prep book to help you study.
3. Practice, Practice, Practice
Even though you've taken the ACT once before, that doesn't mean you don't have to practice much before your retake. In fact, you may want to consider practicing even more than you did before your first ACT! The more consistent you can be, the better.
Practice will reduce the score variation caused by harder/easier test questions or good/bad luck on test day. Think of it this way: any challenge you encounter in practice is one you will be prepared for on test day. Whether that’s an extra-hard math question, a tricky reading passage, or personal fatigue, learning how to deal with challenges in practice can help you achieve your target score on test day.
Use strict timing whenever you study, and aim to consistently hit your target score on each section. Also, be ruthless about analyzing your mistakes – don’t just note your wrong answers, figure out why you got them wrong and how to make sure you won’t ever make the same mistake again. (Read more about how you should be analyzing your mistakes.)
In addition to adopting a smart study plan, you also want to make sure outside factors don’t mess with your ACT retake score. Make sure you’re using the best test center for you. Also, be sure that you’re getting enough sleep and following the guidelines to be ready the morning of the test.
Finally, give yourself enough time before a retake – if you rush to retake the ACT on the next possible test date, you might not give yourself enough time to practice and improve. Make sure you give yourself enough time to study and prepare for your ACT retake!
Check out ACT tips from our resident 36 full-scorer. If you can incorporate all these tips, the odds of your score decreasing will go WAY down!
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Halle Edwards graduated from Stanford University with honors. In high school, she earned 99th percentile ACT scores as well as 99th percentile scores on SAT subject tests. She also took nine AP classes, earning a perfect score of 5 on seven AP tests. As a graduate of a large public high school who tackled the college admission process largely on her own, she is passionate about helping high school students from different backgrounds get the knowledge they need to be successful in the college admissions process.