The ACT Reading Test: Understanding (and moving up) its Bell Curve

By Lev

how to prepare for the ACT

In the seven years I have been instructing the ACT and SAT, I have heard many parents express the opinion that standardized tests are not a reflection of an individual student’s intellectual or academic abilities, but are rather a reflection of his or her test-taking prowess. I think there is some validity to this perspective, especially within the context of the test-prep process. After all, that’s the whole point of standardized test preparation – boosting one’s score via test-specific tips and tricks, right?

Well, partially. But, in my experience, the vast majority of students increase their scores due to their exposure to fundamental pedagogy: instruction of reading techniques, grammar rules, and arithmetic fundamentals. That’s due to a confluence of two factors. First, the big standardized tests are designed to reflect test-takers’ basic academic achievement. Second, most modern American high schools commonly assign reading and writing assignments, but rarely instruct individual students on how to improve their reading and writing at the granular level.

This blog post will focus on ACT Reading test: how it’s structured, how that structure reveals students’ practical literacy levels, and one strategy for improving Reading test scores.

Test Structure and Score Distribution

So, first of all: what exactly is the task required by the ACT Reading test?

The Reading test is 35 minutes long. It contains 4 passages of approximately 80-100 lines (700-1000 words), which always appear in the same order: Prose Fiction (Literary Narrative), Social Science, Humanities, Natural Science. Each passage is accompanied by 10 questions. Unlike the Math test, the questions on the Reading test are not ordered by difficulty. Unlike the old SAT, the ACT Reading test questions are not arranged in order of the passage.

These two traits – unordered difficulty and unordered question content – have ACT-specific implications for test performance: they force the test-taker to rely less on the structure of the test, and to rely more on their own fundamental reading comprehension and organization skills.

The primary obstacle to scoring well on the ACT Reading test is its time constraint – and it is this time constraint which creates the bell curve of scores.

I find it simplest to break down this test into 4 passages + their accompanying questions. The test instructions read,

After reading a passage, choose the best answer to each question and fill in the corresponding oval on your answer document.” [emphases mine]

Many students skip over the instructions at the beginning of each test section, simply because they presume that the test format is self-evident. The format is indeed self-evident, but I think the instructions nevertheless contain important guidance which many students fail to follow. Specifically, the instructions are telling the test-taker:

  • Read the passage before you answer the questions!
  • Some answer choices are good, but only one is best – so read all the choices before you decide.
  • As soon as you have your answer, fill in your bubble sheet.

Why are these bits of guidance important? Let’s start with the first two: Read the entire passage before you answer the questions, and read each question in its entirety, including all answer choices. Although these instructions are simple to understand, they are not easy to follow.

The test-taker has only 8 minutes 45 seconds, on average, to read almost a full page of text and answer 10 related (but unordered) questions. If a student takes 30 seconds to answer each question and fill in the corresponding bubble, then he or she has less than 5 minutes to read and retain 80-100 lines of text. It can certainly be done – but considering that the average American adult’s reading speed is 200-250 words per minute, this task is not a slam dunk for the average 11th grader.

All but the strongest readers will find it challenging to both read all four passages and to also carefully answer all 40 questions, within the 35 minutes provided. Retention tends to be one of the most difficult aspects of this test: most students can accelerate their “reading” to complete the passage within 5 minutes, but that accelerated “reading” usually consists of accelerated “looking at the words,” which is absolutely not the same as reading and annotating for retention of ideas and details.

Typically, I have found that the students who score the highest on the ACT Reading test are those who love to read, and who do so in their spare time. Because those students enjoy consuming multiple pages of text on a daily basis, they typically have no trouble finishing the passages in the time allotted, and their test-prep tutors can confidently jump directly to instructing test-specific question-answering strategies.

In my opinion, the comparative performance of book-lovers and non-bookworm students on the Reading test is similar to the comparative performance of long-distance runners and non-athletes on a P.E. class mile run. Everyone can do it, but those who actually enjoy the task at hand have built up a surplus of comfort and skill – to them, the evaluation is just a daily exercise. By contrast, almost all non-bookworms will find that they run out of time on the ACT Reading test.

This is by design: The ACT Reading Test presumes that advanced literacy is correlated with reading speed, and therefore uses time constraints rather than question difficulty to build its bell curve.

So, the test instructions are actually designed to prevent the students from “gaming” the test to their own disadvantage. One might think that skipping the passage and jumping directly to the question saves time, but many questions are actually very difficult to answer without reading the passage first. Furthermore, many of the multiple choice answers contain attractive keywords, but are nevertheless incorrect. Finally, the instruction to fill in bubbles is intended to prevent students bubbling their answers in the wrong bubble. This is because the questions are unordered by either content or difficulty, and the ACT does not penalize for wrong answers. Taken together, this structure incentivizes students to answer “easy” questions first. This is a good approach! However, if one answers the questions out of order but forgets to bubble in the same order, then the bubble sheet won’t reflect the student’s work. The ACT alternates its multiple choice answers ABCDE / FGHJK to avoid this outcome, but many students manage to shoot themselves in the foot anyway.

Is this a fair way to test literacy? 

Of course, the broad correlation “advanced reading skills = fast reading skills” doesn’t always hold true. Furthermore, time constraints are not the only way to build an evaluation which places students on a skill-based continuum. For instance, Harvard’s placement tests (for a variety of subjects) consist of increasingly-difficult questions, but very little time pressure. Those tests are designed to force the student to stop when he or she has passed his or her threshold of ability. That being said, University placement exam writers can choose questions which closely reflect the curricula of their schools; the writers of the ACT serve an audience of very broad ability level and destination institutions, and therefore the ACT requires a more universally-accessible standard for passage content and question difficulty. So, for the million-plus annual ACT test takers, this exam selects passages from commonly-available media such as daily newspapers or modern novels, writes simple questions based on fundamental understanding of the text, and then squeezes the test-takers for time in order to see who comes out ahead. This approach may not be “fair” to the individual 11th grader who is used to reading a novel over the course of a couple weeks, but it is certainly a universally “fair” way of ordering a huge data set of students.

“Squeezing the Passage”

Many students have outstanding reading comprehension and retention when they are given as much time as they need to master the material. Anecdotally, I have found that most students’ raw reading scores jump significantly when I assign them practice passages without any time limits. In other words, the passages aren’t impossible to crack, and the questions aren’t impossible to interpret – it just takes time to do, and time constraints cramp students’ deployment of their already-developed abilities. Actually, for the purposes of structuring test prep curricula, tutors can use this discrepancy between score-under-time-constraint and score-without-constraint to determine training goals. If the test’s time constraint is “squeezing” the student, we can use a timing-based training technique to “squeeze the passage” right back. Here’s how to do it:

Step 1: Get a watch.

This is really important. Most of us know how 1 minute or 10 minutes “feels,” but very few of us are able to consistently “feel” our way through 5 minutes of reading and then 10x 30 seconds of answering – for a total of 4 sets. Nevertheless - the timing of the passages and their accompanying questions are always the same, so well-prepped test-takers have no excuse for being caught off-guard when 35 minutes are up. Seconds make minutes and minutes yield correct answers, so your watch has to be able to track both minutes and seconds. An analog chronograph works great because it has a timer; a digital watch is fine too. However, smartwatches are not permitted, nor are watches with noisy alarms.

Step 2: Time yourself reading the passage “naturally.”

It may feel odd to time yourself while also behaving as if you weren’t on the clock, but this step is necessary to establish your baseline reading speed. Start your stopwatch, and then don’t look at it – place your phone face down, put your watch in your pocket, etc. Then read a single passage, as thoroughly as possible. Your goal here should be maximum retention and 100% correct answers, not speed. If it takes you 20 minutes to read the passage and get all 10 questions correct, no problem. That’s a valuable data point! It tells you that you already have the fundamental literacy necessary to get all questions correct; you can work with your tutor to improve reading efficiency. If you cannot get all the questions correct regardless of your baseline time, then that’s also a useful data point: it tells you to work with your tutor on fundamental reading skills.

To validate this baseline, repeat the timing exercise for a full Reading test. This will reduce the chances of getting a fluke baseline because you happen to have read a particularly difficult (or enjoyable) passage. As you measure your baseline, take general note of the following timings:

  • How long per passage type? (Fiction, Social Science, Humanities, Natural Science)
  • How long for single vs. double passages?
  • How long to complete all 10 questions? What is your average time per question?
  • Do you spend more time on certain question types? Which types take longer?

Step 3: Squeeze your practice times.

For the sake of illustration, let’s presume that your baseline time is 14 minutes per passage, about half of which you spend reading the passage and about half of which you spend answering the questions. At this pace, you’re able to get almost all of the questions correct.

With a starting point such as this one, your tutor can “squeeze” your reading habits a little bit at a time. For instance, for the following week, your tutor might assign you homework at 12 minutes’ timing per passage; the following week it might be 10 or 11 minutes, depending on your progress. I have found it useful to alternate between timed homework and untimed homework, as this permits me to track my student’s baseline. Typically, a student’s baseline improves when the student has been subjected to two forces: targeted instruction of fundamental reading techniques, and sheer volume of practice.

Immersion leads to Speed

Ok, so - how many pages do you have to read before you’re good at the ACT Reading test?

Well, that’s sort of like asking, “how many miles do I have to run before I’m good at running 1 mile?”

Volume of reading is relative. Some of my test prep colleagues like to say, “the best way to improve one’s Reading score is to read a lot of books … ten years ago.”

This wry comment may seem deliberately unhelpful, but it does reflect a hard truth: if you haven’t spent most days of your life since elementary school reading whatever you can get your hands on, it’s time to learn some fundamental reading techniques, such as reading for main ideas and mapping the passage.

Fundamental reading techniques are not necessary to learn in any particular order, but they do act as force multipliers for each other. For instance, reading for the main idea not only permits efficient answering of “main idea”-type questions, but it also makes mapping the passage much easier, because one has already summarized each paragraph. In turn, a well-mapped passage permits efficient answering of detail questions, especially those questions which omit line numbering. Once you have a foundation for fundamental reading techniques, it’s time to drill for speed. As your speed increases and your confidence grows, you’ll be able to sink your teeth into test-specific techniques, such as identifying common question types and triaging by difficulty. These tips and tricks will give you an edge – but at the end of the day, this is the ACT Reading Test. It tests Reading.

Are you interested in working with an ACT tutor like Lev on your upcoming test?

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