How the ACT is Scored?

TPA-FAQ-ACT-HowistheScored-Header

Have you ever wondered how the ACT is scored? Each ACT is comprised of four ACT subtests. Each of these subtests is the same length on every test administration and they appear in the same order. As of this writing, possible ACT Subtests and their Scaled Scores are as follows:

  • English Test, 60 minutes, 75 questions: 1 to 36 points
  • Math Test, 60 minutes, 60 questions: 1 to 36 points
  • Reading Test, 35 minutes, 40 questions: 1 to 36 points
  • Science Test, 35 minutes, 40 questions: 1 to 36 points
  • Optional Writing Test (Essay): 1 to 12 points

To find out what an ideal score for the ACT Writing would be, check out our other article here

Do Incorrect Questions Hurt Your ACT Raw Score?

A student’s raw score on any subtest is simply the number of questions a student got correct on that subtest, and that raw score is then assigned a scaled score.

The ACT does not penalize students for incorrect answers, so, strategically, it’s always best to make sure you bubble in an answer for every question on each subtest.

How the ACT is Scored: Understanding Scaled Scores

Your ACT Composite Score is the average of your four subtest scaled scores rounded to the nearest whole number. Your possible ACT Composite score ranges from 1 to 36.

It’s a common misunderstanding that the ACT is graded on a curve; most people think that student performance on any given test dictates what constitutes a 36 on the test. That’s not the case, though. In an imaginary world in which only one student answers every question correctly, that single student doesn’t therefore only receive a 36 on the test. 

Instead, the ACT is scored so that a student’s performance on one ACT can be compared to her own performance on any other ACT and any other student’s performance on any other ACT. That comparison–the equivalency–is set by the ACT organization. 

This means that a certain number of questions correct on one ACT does not guarantee the same scaled score on another ACT. 

It’s also very important when you’re doing diagnostics for yourself to make sure you always use the scaled score for the ACT you’re using. They are not interchangeable. 

How was the ACT Scored in April 2019? 

It’s not unlikely that you’ve heard about the infamous April 2019 ACT scores.

The April 2019 ACT is a perfect example of the shift in raw scores to scaled scores. Let’s compare the Official Practice Test for the 2018-2019 school year with the scaled scores on the April 2019 ACT. 

The charts below show the number of questions a student got correct compared to the scaled score he or she would be awarded. 

Here, you will see how the ACT scores by subtest shifted pretty dramatically on this test, particularly on the Science Test, which points to a potential trend towards increasing difficulty for the ACT. 


PRACTICEAPRIL
2019
PRACTICEAPRIL
2019
PRACTICEAPRIL
2019
PRACTICEAPRIL
2019
Scaled ScoreEnglishEnglishMathMathReading ReadingScienceScience
3674-7573-7559-6058-604039-404037-40
3571-7370-7257-5856-5738-393838
34706955-5654-553736-373936-37
3369685452-5336353835
326866-675350-5134-353434
31676551-524933333733
30666449-5047-4832323632
2964-656347-484631
28636245-4643-4530313531
2761-626142-4441-42303430
2659-6059-6039-4139-40292932-3329
2556-5857-5837-3836-3828283128
2453-5554-5634-3634-3526-272729-3027
2350-5251-5332-3332-33252626-2825-26
2247-4948-50313123-2424-2524-2524
2144-4645-4729-3030222322-2322-23

The ACT Is Scored to Measure Benchmarks of College Readiness for Some Students

One of the key ways that the ACT is scored is through the use of benchmarks. College readiness benchmarks are set by the ACT organization as a baseline measurement of a student’s preparedness to do college-level work. 

These are not baselines measurements to see if you’re ready to major in Engineering at MIT or Comparative Literature at Williams. Rather, these are measurements to bring meaning to ACT scores of students from all backgrounds. 

This table, which I have borrowed in full from the ACT organization, shows you the benchmarks for specific college courses that you’ll find on your score report: 

ACT test scoreCollege coursesBenchmark
EnglishEnglish Composition I18
MathematicsCollege Algebra22
ReadingAmerican History, Other History, Psychology, Sociology, Political Science, Economics22
ScienceBiology23
STEM1Calculus, Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Engineering26
ELA2English Composition 1, American History, Other History, Psychology, Sociology, Political Science, Economics20

1. The ACT STEM score is the rounded average of the ACT mathematics and science scale scores.
2. The ACT ELA score is the rounded average of the ACT English, reading, and writing scale scores.

It’s notable that in 2018, these benchmarks were met by a relatively small group of test-takers: 60% of English test-takers, 46% of Reading test-takers, 40% of Math test-takers, and 36% of Science test-takers. In fact, only a little more than a quarter of all ACT test-takers met the benchmarks in all four subjects. 

Is This ACT Score A Good Score? 

We’ve written other articles about ways to understand how good your ACT score is, and what in general is a good ACT score, but the most straightforward way to understand your ACT score is to see it in a percentile format compared to everyone that takes the ACT.

On the 1 to 36 point scale for the ACT Without Writing, the median test score is a 20.5–even though a student’s actual score could only be a whole number, such as a 20 or 21. 

I’ve used a chart from the ACT’s competitor to create a general percentile chart for current ACT percentile rankings of composite scores. 

ACT Composite ScoreNational Percentile
3699+
3599
3498-99
3397-98
3295-96
3194-95
3092-93
2989-91
2887-88
2782-86
2679-81
2574-77
2468-73
2363-67
2260-62
2151-56
2045-49
1937-43
1832-36
1726-31
1620-24
1513-18
148-12
134-7
122-3

Is the ACT Superscored? 

This is the most common question about the ACT scoring–and for good reason. The overwhelming majority of colleges and universities honor the practice of superscoring. When you “superscore” your ACT, you choose the highest score you earn on each subtest–regardless of its test date–and take the average. 

The ACT does not allow you to pick and choose which subtest scores to send; you must send the entire score report from all the test dates you intend to use to superscore. Your superscore will be calculated and verified for you by your admissions committee. 

How Is The ACT Scored? Final Thoughts

Policies about test scores change continually at colleges, so always stay up to date and visit the admissions pages of the schools to which you intend to apply to verify their superscore policy as well as verify what ACT scores other students had to achieve to be accepted.