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The Odds of Perfection: Too Many Perfect Scores for the ACT’s Good

Perfection can be a tricky thing. Too much of it diminishes value. Think of little league where everyone got a trophy. Or that Earth Science class where the teacher promised an A+ if her students simply did the work. Not everyone deserves the label of “perfect,” and the same is true for the ACT. A composite of 36 should be reserved for a select few, and too much perfection should raise red flags over the difficulty of the test. But how many students should get perfect scores? Over a five-year period, students scoring a perfect 36 composite on the ACT increased 82%, from 638 to 1,162 students. What is driving that growth? Is it a function of more students taking the test? As students switch from the SAT to the ACT, are they bringing their test prep skills to bear on a more straight-forward test? Can we expect the ACT to rein in the perfect scores with more difficult math and reading sections? Whatever the reason, the ACT will need to change its game to keep its perfect score meaningful.

Breaking down the perfect scores by state, we can create 2 distinct groups: the “big shots,” and the “Cinderella stories.”

The Big Shots

First, we have the states that boast high numbers of test-takers and high numbers of perfect score students. Examples include Illinois, whose 127 students comprise more than 10% of all perfect score students. This shouldn’t be surprising, since Illinois had the highest number of students (160,066) taking the test of any state. As a percent of its total population, Illinois’ perfect scores amounted to 0.079%, slightly higher than the national average. The following chart shows large states with large ACT turnout and, as a result, large numbers of perfect scores:

We would expect as much from states as large as these. When you calculate the percent of students who got a perfect 36, those numbers reflect the national average, about one perfect score for every 1,600 students.

The Cinderella Stories

Second, we have the states with a relatively lower turnout of students, but a higher number of perfect scores. This category includes New Hampshire; 2,987 students took the ACT in 2013, and 34 students got perfect scores. That’s one student for every 87 scoring perfectly. Keep in mind that Illinois has one student out of 1,260 scoring perfectly. New Hampshire is rocking the ACT’s world! Or consider Nevada, a state that saw only 7,602 students take the test, 44 of whom got a perfect score. With this state, one student out of 172 got a perfect score, almost 10 times the national average!

These numbers are quite surprising. 1.5% of the ACT test-taking population is earning 15% of the perfect scores. They make a bit more sense when viewed holistically. In “If States, Not Students, Applied to College”, I made the case that when a state prefers one test over another, the less popular test can expect to see higher scores. In a state where most students are expected to take the SAT, for example, those who decide to take the ACT do so for a compelling reason, most likely because they took both tests and saw that the ACT was the stronger. Though such states saw a low turnout, it is likely that the students who did show up performed higher than average, with more students getting that perfect 36.

What does this data tell us? Perfect scores are up across nearly every state. Five years ago, California had 42 perfect scores; this past year, the state had 100. New Hampshire had zero perfect scores in 2009 and in 2013 saw 34. Other states are seeing significant increases in the number of students scoring perfectly. Students in previously SAT-dominant states are seeing that they may perform better on the ACT, and are prepping their way to perfection.

How may the ACT respond?

Should this increase in perfect score students be a cause for concern to the ACT? Not at all, says Katie Wacker, ACT’s Public Relations Associate. While an increase from 0.04% to 0.06% is dramatic, it is still well below the ACT’s goal that less than 1/10 of 1% of its students earns a 36 composite score. “It’s something to celebrate,” Wacker says. It shows the improvement in course rigor which leads to higher student accomplishment.

Still, the way perfect scores are heading, the ACT will need to change its tune if it wants to keep perfect scores below 0.1%. Already, we are seeing changes to the ACT that might provide trickier material to keep the perfect 36 further out of reach. Like that Chemistry teacher who intentionally put a near-impossible question at the end of the test to keep that A+ elusive, the ACT has been ramping up the difficulty of the science and reading sections. In science, we are seeing the appearance of more science content for a section that has until recently tested a student’s ability to interpret charts and find data. As for reading, the October ACT featured a comparison passage for the first time in its history. Too many students, it seems, have been acing those sections. The ACT’s response has been to increase the difficulty.

The ACT’s problems may be solved with its announcement of a computer-based test as soon as the spring of 2015. If each student is provided a computer-adaptive test, similar to the GRE, it would be much easier to “adapt” a test to a student’s individual abilities, making perfection a moving target. Until then, we can expect to see the ACT turning up the difficulty of its sections to keep perfect scores manageable.

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  • Saad

    If you read the 2016 report, the number of 36 scorers is already above one-tenth of one percent: 2,235 perfect scores of just over 2,000,000 test takers.

  • Phil Kershner

    Can I get some clarification? It is possible to get a composite score of 36 without getting a 36 in each of the four sections. It seems to me the label “perfect ACT score” ought to be reserved for those who get a 36 in each of the four sections. The others may have receive the highest ACT score possible, but I don’t know if I would call it a perfect ACT. So when we hear that roughly one thousand in the nation got a perfect ACT, are we talking a composite score of 36 or 36 on every section? And if we are talking a composite score or 36, does anyone know how many are getting what I call a “perfect ACT score”? (i.e. 36 on every section)

  • Boxlock

    Doesn’t much matter! There is more to the individual than that. A composite score of 36 however is damn good! Actually….Exceptional!

  • Phil Kershner

    Of course it doesn’t much matter in the bigger scheme of things. But neither do tennis matches and yet we spend money on machines to make sure every call is perfect. Can’t we be curious about matters not of great consequence? Obviously someone who scores 35 on two sections and 36 on two sections (and therefore gets a composite score of 36 since the ACT people round up) has done brilliantly. But not quite as brilliantly as the person who scored 36 on all four sections. So I was just wondering what the ACT people meant by a “perfect” ACT score: a composite 36 (which could be a 34 and three 36s in addition to the example I gave above) or a test in which the person scored 36 on all four sections. It seems to me the term “perfect ” should be reserved for the latter, but it’s not my call. I was just asking if anyone knew what the folks in charge mean by “perfect.”

  • Boxlock

    Phil all I can tell you is that’s the way his score was reported by ACT. His 35s were very high and so were his 36s and they reported to him a rounded perfect 36 is what’s reported to perspective schools.

  • Phil Kershner

    Boxtock, I think we’ve turned this molehill into a mountain. 🙂 I just wondered if anyone out there knew what exactly the ACT people meant by a “perfect” 36. But you’re right: “Doesn’t much matter.” Best wishes,

  • Boxlock

    Same back at ya, best wishes! I’m quite proud of him as I am of his older sister who scored a 35 and is now a Sophomore at Columbia University in the City of New York.

  • Phil Kershner

    Proud you should be! And you don’t have to tell me that Columbia is in NYC. Anyone who doesn’t know where Columbia is doesn’t know much about U.S. higher education.It’s one of the great universities of the country (indeed, of the word). Congrats to her! This has to end somewhere. : ) I’ll give you the last word if you have anything to add. Otherwise, carry on!

  • Boxlock

    Thank you, but did you know that the “official name” for Columbia in fact is “ Columbia University in the City of New York?” I rarely use the full official name though.