The ACT is getting more popular each year, though it still might not be as popular as the Plastics.
Wondering if having the ACT required in states increases its overall popularity nationwide? And is requiring the ACT the best policy for students?
We’ll discuss the statewide ACT policies and how effective they are nationwide. Also, we’ll tell you how to approach the ACT, whether you’re living in an ACT-required state or not!
Which States Require the ACT?
The following states require the ACT in some form. Note that some states require the ACT Plus Writing, others require the plain ACT, and a few allow students to choose.
States that Require the ACT Plus Writing
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
States that Require the ACT (No Writing)
- Alaska (students choose between ACT Plus Writing, SAT or ACT Work Keys)
- North Dakota (students choose between ACT without writing or ACT Work Keys)
- Oklahoma (districts have the option to offer the ACT
Have Statewide Testing Programs Increased ACT Participation Nationally?
You may be wondering if the various ACT state partnerships have driven an increase in ACT test takers nationally. Indeed, making the ACT a part of the standardized test routines in various states may have caused the ACT to overtake the SAT in popularity.
Back in 2001, Colorado and Illinois became the first states to require all high school juniors to take the ACT (although both have since switched over to the SAT). This was part of a growing national movement to hold schools accountable for student progress through standardized testing.
According to a 2009 report from the ACT, “Colorado uses the ACT in its Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) as an eleventh-grade achievement-based assessment that gives the state an indication of how well its public schools are performing at educating students at the K–12 level. Illinois also administers the ACT to all of its public high school juniors as part of its Prairie State Achievement Exam (PSAE). Illinois uses the ACT to measure student progress on meeting state learning.”
Illinois and Colorado were the first states to require the ACT.
By 2009, Kentucky, Michigan, and Wyoming had followed suit. And, as we’ve seen, the number of states requiring the ACT only continued to grow, which seems to have further driven the ACT's growth. As of 2012, the ACT has surpassed the SAT as the most commonly taken college entrance exam in the US. From the most recent data, 1,924,436 students took the ACT in 2015, while just 1.7 million took the SAT.
Given that the ACT is required in some form in 18 states while the SAT is only required in four, ACT’s statewide testing partnerships could be seen as a big part of its national increase. The ACT has also been the exam of state in mid-western and southern states, which has added up as those states’ populations have grown.
A lot of these expanded partnerships are possible because ACT has marketed itself as an exam that tests what students learn in school, not just “achievement” or “ability” like the SAT.
Are State ACT Partnerships Good for Students?
There are many reasons expanding ACT testing can be a good thing – it can help students apply to college and get scholarships, for one. But there are plenty of reasons it’s not always the best move for students. We’ll discuss both sides below.
Reasons Statewide ACT Testing Can Be Beneficial
The main reason ACT testing can be good is because it gives ACT access to an entire student population. This means that, free of charge, thousands of students take an important step towards applying to college. Pretty much all colleges require standardized testing, and the ACT is accepted at nearly all. So by giving all students a chance to take the ACT once, for free, these schools make at least one part of the college admission process easier for students.
It also gives highly motivated students another chance at the ACT (students who would already be paying to take it once anyway) – which gives them a shot at higher scores and better scholarships. (As we’ve discussed before, the higher your ACT score, the higher the scholarships you can earn.) So instead of paying for two shots at the ACT, like many students do, you only have to pay for one.
Finally, requiring the ACT encourages at least some ACT prep in schools. This is good for helping students get into college, but can be bad if it takes away from other instructional goals, as we’ll discuss below.
Drawbacks to Statewide ACT Testing
Expanding the ACT does not guarantee an increase in students getting good enough ACT scores for college. In fact, scores are stagnating – while there is lots of growth in students taking the test, many students aren't passing the college readiness benchmarks.
This means many students are taking the ACT but not getting very good scores, which does not help with college admissions or netting scholarships.
Furthermore, requiring the ACT could take away time from other learning if teachers are forced to include ACT prep in their classes. Much of what is tested on the ACT is taught over multiple grade levels, so it could be hard for a teacher to include ACT prep in their normal curriculum.
Also, in states that don’t require the ACT Plus Writing, many students will be required to pay to retake the ACT again since many colleges require the ACT Plus Writing. This makes the school ACT more of a practice run for those students, which could contribute to standardized testing fatigue.
Finally, requiring the ACT could stress out students who aren’t college bound (with the exception of the states that include Work Keys as a test option alongside the ACT). The ACT is a college entrance examination, and while it claims to test a lot of what’s learned in schools, it’s not a comprehensive test of high school learning. If schools really want a sense of how students are doing, more straightforward tests (with less extreme time constraints) might give them a more accurate picture.
What to Do If You Live in an ACT-Required State
First of all, make sure you study hard for the school ACT if you’re applying to all-scores schools. The reason? You’ll have to send the score you get for the school test to any “all scores” schools, so you can’t treat it as a practice run.
Also, look to see if your state requires the ACT Plus Writing or not – some states have students take the writing version, others do not. If you’re taking the non-writing version, check to see if colleges you want to apply to require the ACT Plus Writing, since you’ll have to take it again with writing to apply to them.
Also, don’t forget about the SAT! If you think you’ll do better on that test, sign up for it instead. Remember, you’re only required to submit one or the other to colleges.
Finally, remember SAT Subject Tests – some colleges require those in addition to the SAT or ACT! Even if your school is getting you off the ACT hook, you may still need to sign up for SAT Subject Tests on your own to apply to college.
What to Do If You’re Not in an ACT-Required State
First, check to see if your state requires the SAT. If your state requires the SAT, it might be easier to take the SAT since your school is paying for it.
However, whether you’re in an SAT state or a state where neither test is required, take a practice version of both tests to figure out which one you’ll be best at.
Focus on studying for the test you think you’ll be best at, regardless of which test seems to be most popular in your state or district. Maximize your studying time by just taking either the SAT or ACT, not both.
Check out the average ACT scores by state to learn how your state stacks up!
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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.