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David Recine

What is the ACT Compass Test?

The most well-known ACT test is (of course) the ACT, which is commonly used as an admission test for four-year universities. However, the ACT also administers a placement exam for students who have already been admitted to colleges and universities. This exam is called the ACT Compass and for years it has been used to test the level of community college students, and sometimes university students as well.

Due to a decline in popularity, ACT will discontinue its Compass exam by the end of the year. That being said, there are still over 1 million students who will take the ACT Compass this year. The Compass will remain an important exam for colleges and universities for the next twelve months and it may be replaced by a similar exam in the future.


How the ACT Compass is Used

If you need to prepare for the ACT Compass, it’s important to understand that the Compass is not an admissions exam like the ACT. By this I mean that the Compass does not determine whether or not you get into a school. Instead, the Compass exam is a placement exam.

Being a placement exam, your ACT Compass scores determine whether you will be able to take regular course-credit classes in all subjects right away, or will need to take some remedial courses. Remedial courses help you improve academic skills that you’re weak in. Since remedial courses are taught below the college level, they do not count as course credit toward your major or toward graduation.

Community colleges typically do not require actual admissions exams, they will accept any applicant who is interested in attending. Since they accept students regardless of academic ability, community colleges need to determine the level of each student in order to place students in their appropriate classes. These two-year degree institutions generally require the Compass for all students after they’ve applied and been accepted. To see an example of how ACT Compass scores correspond to placement in certain types of classes, check out Des Moines Community College’s Compass Score/Course Placement table here.

Since universities do require admissions exams, they don’t make every admitted student take the Compass. Instead, universities administer the Compass to students who’ve been accepted into school in spite of having less than the minimum ACT or SAT score normally required. This kind of acceptance of low-scoring students is called conditional acceptance.

Typically, conditional acceptance is extended to applicants who got the minimum scores on most of the skills in their ACT or SAT, but did very poorly on one section. Suppose, for instance, that a university requires a minimum ACT score of 25. An applicant with a 29 in English, a 30 in Reading, a 24 in science, and a 19 in Math might still be very appealing to the university. Such a student is clearly doing well in most subjects, but will need some math help in order to succeed in the long run. So the university might accept the student, but ask the student to meet certain conditions in order to be accepted. In this case, the student would be required to take a Compass Math placement exam and attend a remedial math course selected on the basis of the student’s ACT Compass placement score.


Content and Format of the ACT Compass

The ACT Compass has a significantly different format than the ACT. The ACT itself is just one exam, with an optional writing section that can be added or left out. In contrast, the ACT Compass is a lineup of five different exams: Reading, Writing Skills (similar to the grammar and rhetoric questions on the ACT) Writing Essay, Mathematics and English as a Second Language (ESL).

Each of these exams can be taken separately from the other. Within the ESL and Math tests there are narrower-skills-focused “sub-tests.” ACT Compass ESL has separate exams for listening, reading, writing, and grammar. And Compass Math is customizable, offering assessment in one or more of the following areas: pre-algebra, algebra, college algebra, geometry and trigonometry.

The content of most of the ACT Compass exams is comparable to the ACT in terms of difficulty. However, content can sometimes be a little below ACT-level-assessment, depending on the exam. ACT Math and ACT Compass Math are virtually the same. ACT Compass Writing Skills are a little easier than English questions on the ACT and reading is also a little bit simpler. Similarly, a typical ACT Compass Writing Essay question will be a little easier than the average ACT essay.

ESL is the one ACT Compass Exam that is completely different from the ACT in terms of content and difficulty. Each of the Compass ESL skills tests is leveled for students with different English ability, with level 1 being the lowest level and level 4 being the highest. Level 4 exam questions are almost as complex as the questions on the ACT itself, while level 1 questions are very simple and designed to place students who are just beginning to learn English.


Studying for the ACT Compass

Since the ACT Compass is for placement, not admissions, students need to approach test prep differently than they would on a typical admissions exam. In my next post on ACT Compass, I’ll talk about the best ways to study for the ACT Compass.


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About David Recine

David is a test prep expert at Magoosh. He has a Bachelor of Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and a Masters in Teaching English to Speakers of other Languages from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has been teaching K-12, University, and adult education classes since 2007 and has worked with students from every continent. Currently, David lives in a small town in the American Upper Midwest. When he’s not teaching or writing, David studies Korean, plays with his son, and takes road trips to Minneapolis to get a taste of city life. Follow David on Google+ and Twitter!

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