Has the Format of the ACT Science Test Changed?

Our students have been reporting that, on both the February and April 2015 tests, the ACT Science format was not at all what they expected.

To be clear, the ACT Science format has always been standard in that it contains three types of passages: Data Representation, Research Summaries, and Conflicting Viewpoints. However, recently test-takers have seen the number of each type of passage, and the distribution of questions among passages, change. While these shifts may seem scary, getting to know the possible scenarios you could encounter will help you prepare for the ACT Science test without any fears about its format.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at exactly what’s been presenting a problem on ACT Science, what it might mean for you as a test-taker, and how you can best prep for the formatting scenarios you could encounter on the official test.

Why is This Format Change Such a Problem?

For years and years (and years), the ACT Science test has consistently been formatted this way:

  • 3 Data Representation passages with 5 questions each
  • 3 Research Summaries passages with 6 questions each
  • 1 Conflicting Viewpoints passage with 7 questions

Because the ACT is such a time-pressured test, many students prep for it by using specific pacing or ordering strategies. For example, some students have been taught to “do all the 5-question passages first” or to “allow 4 minutes for the Data Representation passages, 5 minutes for the Research Summaries passages, and 6 minutes for the Conflicting Viewpoints passage.”

Needless to say, many of these students were completely thrown off on the February and April 2015 Science tests when they looked at their exam and saw 6 passages instead of 7 or 6 questions on a passage that they thought would have 5.

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The ACT was not able to confirm for me whether or not this will be an ongoing pattern for the test. However, it’s fair to expect that this might be the case on future exams.

So here’s what you definitely CAN expect.

The ACT confirms that the Science question breakdown will be in the following ranges:

  • Data Representation: 30-40%
  • Research Summaries: 45-55%
  • Conflicting Viewpoints: 15-20%

Now, let me make your life easy for you and break down the math.

First, regarding the Conflicting Viewpoints passage, 15-20% means 6 to 8 questions. This means you are highly unlikely to see more than one Conflicting Viewpoints passage on a test because then they each would have only 3 to 4 questions; not really worth your or the ACT’s time.

Regarding Data Representation, 30-40% means 12 to 16 questions, and regarding Research Summaries, 45-55% means 18 to 22 questions.

It’s a little harder to predict what you might see overall because of the flexibility these particular score ranges allow.

Here are a few potential scenarios based on these numbers and on what we’ve seen:

The traditional:

  • 3 Data Representation passages with 5 questions each
  • 3 Research Summaries passages with 6 questions each
  • 1 Conflicting Viewpoints passage with 7 questions

Another possibility:

  • 2 Data Representation passages with 6 questions each
  • 3 Research Summaries passages with 7 questions each
  • 1 Conflicting Viewpoints passage with 7 questions

UPDATE: I confirmed with my own eyes that the above format was the case on the September 2015 ACT. 

After this, we start to get into scenarios where there could be different numbers of questions on the same passage type, such as:

  • 2 Data Representation passages with 5 questions each
  • 1 Data Representation passage with 6 questions
  • 2 Research Summaries Passages with 6 questions each
  • 1 Research Summaries Passage with 5 questions
  • 1 Conflicting Viewpoints passage with 7 questions

….and so on. There are lots of other possibilities if this should happen.

So what can you do to prepare for these potential changes in the ACT Science Test format?

First of all, I would suggest letting go of any strategy that asks you to spend a certain amount of time per passage type. You can’t rely on that.

If you prefer to tackle passages with fewer questions first, you can still do this, just scan through the test when you begin and find the ones that have the fewest questions.

If you need a general pacing strategy, I would suggest sticking to a rule of thumb of about 5 minutes per passage if you see 7 passages and 6 minutes per passage if you see 6 passages, always leaving the Conflicting Viewpoints passage for last (because it takes the most time), but don’t freak out if you take longer on a passage that has more questions, just check your watch after each passage and see where you are at and try to make up the ground on the shorter passages.

Hope this helps all our future ACT test-takers out there feel more prepared for the Science (and you can feel even more prepared by checking out our ACT Science Practice Test questions and explanations, and we will keep you posted on all future developments here on our blog!


  • Kristin Fracchia

    Dr. Kristin Fracchia has over fifteen years of expertise in college and graduate school admissions and with a variety of standardized tests, including the ACT, SAT, GRE, GMAT, and LSAT, with several 99% scores. She had a PhD from the University of California, Irvine, an MA degree from The Catholic University, and BA degrees in Secondary Education and English Literature from the University of Maryland, College Park. She was the recipient of the 2013 Excellence in Teaching Award and the Chancellor’s Club Fellowship from the University of California, Irvine. She’s worked as a high school teacher and university professor, as an independent college and graduate school admissions counselor, and as an expert tutor for standardized tests, helping hundreds of students gain acceptance into premier national and international institutions. She now develops accessible and effective edtech products for Magoosh. Her free online content and YouTube videos providing test prep and college admissions advice have received over 6 million views in over 125 countries. Kristin is an advocate for improving access to education: you can check out her TEDx talk on the topic. Follow Kristin on LinkedIn!

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8 Responses to Has the Format of the ACT Science Test Changed?

  1. Laura Link May 7, 2015 at 9:11 am #

    I am a high school ACT prep teacher and a private tutor. We are hearing that the April science was even harder than February. Students I privately tutored for both administrations earned 22 in Feb and 21 in April. I’ve never had a backwards slide in Science in all my years tutoring. For them, it wasn’t the timing issues you mention but the passages and questions themselves. When will the ACT release the April test?

    • Kristin Fracchia
      Kristin Keating May 7, 2015 at 11:26 am #

      Hi Laura! Thanks so much for your feedback. I’ve heard mixed things–a few students saying they thought Science was harder in April, a few who said they didn’t notice much of a difference. For what it’s worth, when I sat for the February ACT, I thought three of the passages were fairly easy, and the others were more difficult (but not more difficult than what I’ve seen on 2013 and 2014 tests). However, as we both know as tutors, there is some subjectivity there :). I did think that there were more questions than I’ve seen in that past that more subtly made use of outside science knowledge. The curve does not appear to be getting any easier, however; the test is adjusting for a greater number of students performing at a high level on the science. I am looking forward to finding out more about the April test as well. If you have students that ordered the Test Information Release prior to the April test date, at the earliest they could expect the test booklet by the last week in May (based on previous years), more likely in the first couple weeks of June. I’d love to hear to hear your thoughts when you get the test!

  2. Carrie Young July 22, 2015 at 8:18 am #

    Hi, thanks for the postings about the 2015 ACT. Do you know where any sources or practice tests for the 2015 ACT could be found?

    Thanks very much,


    • Kristin Fracchia
      Kristin Fracchia July 22, 2015 at 9:49 am #

      Hi Carrie, I have my eyes peeled for an updated 4th edition of The Real ACT Prep Guide with more recent official ACTs, but nothing yet. The ACT has updated some of its practice questions on its website (for example, a comparison reading passage and the new writing prompt for the fall): http://www.actstudent.org/sampletest/.

      You can also find a pretty updated, recently released ACT test to practice with here: http://www.act.org/aap/pdf/Preparing-for-the-ACT.pdf

      Other than that, the Real ACT Prep Guide 3rd Edition is your best bet for official tests. We also have practice tests and questions at act.magoosh.com 🙂 !

  3. Chaofan February 26, 2016 at 4:48 pm #

    thx for the explanation

    • Kristin Fracchia
      Kristin Fracchia February 29, 2016 at 9:44 am #

      You’re welcome, Chaofan!

  4. Sarah March 25, 2016 at 7:26 am #

    As of now, do you know for sure how many passages the ACT Science test will have? 
    I am taking the test in April and I am concerned about how I should pace myself for this section.


    • Kristin Fracchia
      Kristin Fracchia March 25, 2016 at 11:21 am #

      Thanks so much for asking, Sarah! Since we wrote this post, every ACT Science section has had 6 passages, broken down into 2 Data Representation passages with 6 questions each, 3 Research Summaries passages with 7 questions each, and 1 Conflicting Viewpoints passage with 7 questions. The ACT won’t confirm this will always be the case, so I can’t say for absolute sure, but I think this is what you can expect! 🙂

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