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Surprise! ACT Folks Turned up the Heat in Math and Science on the June 2016 Test 

The ACT test makers were a little bit sneaky in my opinion. While the College Board put out press releases and samples tests before making changes to the SAT, the ACT folks did not do likewise. Instead, they simply released a new book (formerly called The Real ACT, and now titled Official ACT Prep Guide 2016-17). The new book came out on May 31 without fanfare, just 10 days prior to the June ACT date. I picked up a copy and can now see what may have happened on the June test for some students.


It turns out that ACT turned up the heat on the both the math and science subtests. While the math test has been evolving for several years, it seems that we can now expect quite a few questions to be pitched to a level more akin to the SAT Math Levels I and II Subject tests. The science subtest now requires the highest scorers to use more content knowledge from high school biology, chemistry, and physics courses. Students must also use more math skills, without the aid of a calculator, on the science portion of the ACT.


Math Test Revisions

The math test now includes greater variety of concepts that we have seen on past tests. We suspect that soon, the ACT reports will stop listing scores in subcategories labeled “Pre-Algebra/Elementary,  Intermediate Algebra/Coordinate Geometry, and Plane Geometry/Trigonometry” and start using the Common Core breakdowns of Number & Quantity, Algebra & Functions, Geometry, Statistics & Probability. We say this because it appears that the test questions are more evenly spread across these four areas of Common Core focus. For example, we noted greater emphasis on Probability & Statistics on the new sample tests.


We also note that the test writers are writing questions that cannot be easily solved with the use of a calculator. For example, in the past students could use a calculator to multiply matrices. Now, the test items related to matrices include variables, scalar multiplication, and other matrix operations, making it more necessary for the student to truly understand what a matrix is and how to perform operations using matrices.  


The entire list of concepts tested, according to the Official ACT Prep Guide 2016-17, is given here.


Science Test Revisions

The science test now has 6 readings instead of 7, but with more questions per passage. This may sound like a great deal for students. However, previous versions of the science subtest contained 1 or 2 questions that required the use of science facts taught in biology, chemistry, or physics classes. The answers to approximately 38 of 40 questions could be found solely by looking at the charts, graphs, and text given on the Science subtest itself.


If the June test (which has not been released to the public) matches what we see in the new prep materials, it is likely that 1 or 2 questions per passage require the student to rely on what they have learned in high school science curriculum. This means that potentially only 28 to 32 of the 40 answers can be answered correctly using the test content only.


We also see that some of the science questions required use of math skills.  Students are not permitted to use a calculator on the science test, so they must be able to quickly execute some basic arithmetic operations either mentally or using good old paper and pencil.  For overly-calculator-dependent test takers, this will add stress at the end of a long ACT day.


While many of the questions on the science test are more complex than in past years, the number of questions and time allotted to answer them remains the same. This means that the test has the added difficulty of managing the clock better.


Reasons for the Revisions

While I can only speculate, I think the changes are probably meant to spread out the ACT scores – especially at the top end (in the 30-36 range). Over time, this will be good for the nation of ACT test-takers.


It also appears to me that the test is meant to give students an opportunity to demonstrate knowledge more in alignment with Common Core Standards. Because many States are seeking a test to assess mastery of high school content, and because so many have adopted the Common Core Standards, the ACT folks are probably adjusting their test to meet the need. This helps the States avoid the need to pay development costs for producing their own tests.


(The makers of the ACT report that they have revised the test to better reflect the content students learn at school. Many American classrooms focus on the “Common Core Standards” -- under that name or under some re-branded name.  In Tennessee, for example, the Common Core Standards name has been removed, but the standards are basically the same thing under a new, less-controversial name, “Tennessee Academic Standards.” Note that the textbooks adopted by the Tennessee are often boldly labeled “Common Core Edition.”)



What the Revisions Mean for Students

The June 2016 ACT test-takers got caught in the crosshairs of change. The students who took the June test (especially those who were already close to the top of range), had a reasonable expectation that they could inch their numbers up by tightening their skills and strategies for a test that was similar to previous versions.  But with such significant changes in the test and no warning of the need to prepare differently, even top students’ scores may have remained flat or even dropped in math and science.


Use newer test prep materials.

Going forward, new ACT test-takers students will adapt to the new testing structure and content. Older versions of the ACT test are still valuable resources as practice.  However, we caution students not to use the older versions as a gauge for how well they would perform on the next official ACT test.


All students need to review the topics listed as “fair game” in Official Act Prep Guide, 1st Edition, Wiley Publishing, May 2016. The ACT test makers also provide a free test prep booklet called “Preparing for the ACT.” The newest version of this booklet includes the newest material and is located here.



Improve your mental math skills

Since the items – especially those on the last third of the test – are more complex, students who expect high ACT scores will need to get through the first 40 test items more rapidly so that they have more time to think through the more complicated problems. For many students, this will mean that they need to practice their mental math skills. Many of even the best test-takers struggle to complete the ACT because they get bogged down by arithmetic. They reach for the calculator because they think they will improve their speed by doing so. In truth, the calculator often slows down the student.


So our advice to you is that when you practice taking ACT tests, see if you can get through the first half of the test without the aid of a calculator. If you cannot, then you probably need to work on your basic math facts, as well as your rounding and estimation skills.    


Start preparing sooner!

We strongly recommend that students begin preparing for the ACT during the summer prior to their Junior year. Start by taking a diagnostic ACT.  By getting an idea of your strengths and weaknesses early, we can help you formulate a plan to maximize your official ACT score.


If you have already decided upon a test date but would like some tutoring to help prepare for the test, we recommend that you contact us 2 to 4 months in advance.  Be prepared to meet with the tutor(s) weekly for at least 6 weeks prior to the test date.

ACT Announces Changes to the Optional Writing Portion of the Test -- Effective September 2015



The ACT folks have announced significant changes to the Optional Writing Portion of the ACT. In addition to adjusting the scoring from the old 12-point scale to a new 36 point scale, the prompt now asks the students to respond to three different positions on a given topic.


Here is more information directly from the source:



Dr. Becker Honored with "Professor Emeritus" Status by Christian Brothers University School of Sciences



Dr. Leigh C. Becker, Brainiac Tutoring's resident math guru, was honored in March, 2014 when Christian Brothers University awarded him with the title of Professor Emeritus. For more about this accomplishment, see the Christian Brothers University School of Sciences Newsletter


Organized for Learning

(November 21, 2013 from 8 to 9 AM at the SAA-SDS Cybrary)

for Parents of  5th and 6th Grade St  Dominic School Students

Come and learn how you can help your 5th or 6th grade SDS student develop better organization skills that lead to better learning, better grades, and a more peaceful home.


This is a free one-hour presentation. Light refreshments will be served. 


Please RSVP to Brainiac@BrainiacTutoring.com by noon on Wednesday, November 20. 


Pre-calculus Course for Home-schooled Students

(Sept 3, 2013 – May 20, 2014)

The goal of the course is twofold: (1) to prepare the student for the ACT and SAT exams, and more importantly, (2) to prepare the student for a university calculus course.  Topics include essential algebra; quadratic equations; the standard functions of engineering and the physical sciences, such as exponential, logarithmic, and trigonometric functions; graphs; right triangle trigonometry; and real-world applications.  The course will emphasize definitions, the understanding of concepts, problem-solving, and applications.


The course will be taught by Leigh C. Becker, Ph.D., former Professor of Mathematics at Christian Brothers University.


For complete course information, click here.

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