Recently I received an inquiry about test preparation from a parent who said her daughter (not a student of mine) had scored a 32 composite the previous fall on the ACT. She was frustrated because the science sub score was only a 29, yet she had been scoring as high as a 36 in practice. Part of her problem on the real test was timing.
But the fluctuation in scores got me thinking of something many people don’t realize. Scores, both on ACT and SAT, are “scaled” to control for variations in test difficulty. Some tests (or subtests) are truly, statistically harder than others. Therefore, in order to be able to compare students’ scores from different administrations of the test, the scores are normed with a unique, statistically determined scale.  That is, the “easier” the test, the harder the scale; the “harder” the test, the easier the scale. This explains why scoring four wrong on the science can get you a 29 on one version of the test, yet a 34 on another (see chart below for tests #1 and #5 in 2015 ed. of The Real ACT Prep Guide.)

A 29 is a far cry from a 34 for the same number correct.  The scaling changes, because the level of difficulty changes.

 #out of 40 Test #1 Test #2 Test #3 Test #4 Test #5 0831B 1163 E 1460 E ONLINE 2015 form 73C
39 right 35 S 35 S 36 S 36 S 36 S 35 S 35 S 35 S 35 S 36 S
38 right 33 S 34 S 35 S 35 S 36 S 34 S 34 S 34 S 34 S 35 S
37 right 31 S 33 S 34 S 34 S 35 S 32 S 33 S 32 S 33 S 34 S
36 right 29 S 32 S 33 S 32 S 34 S 30 S 31 S 31 S 31 S 33 S
35 right 28 S 30 S 32 S 31 S 33 S 29 S 30 S 29 S 28 S 32 S
30 right 25 S 26 S 27 S 26 S 28 S 25 S 26 S 26 S 23 S 26 S
25 right 21 S 23 S 23 S 23 S 24 S 21 S 23 S 23 S 20 S 24 S
20 right 18 S 20 S 20 S 21 S 21 S 19 S 20 S 20 S 16 S 21 S

But what if a student’s problem is just carelessness?   If she gets a few wrong on each science test because of miss-marking or misreading a question, she is going to see a greater fluctuation in scores than someone who is a consistent test taker but is unfamiliar with a “harder” topic.  That simple problem might account for her variation in scores.

One can argue that the student with the careless test-taking problem is easier to help than the student who simply doesn’t understand the science and is doing the best she can do. I know of many test-taking strategies that can help a student become more consistent in testing and avoid careless errors; careful evaluation can help determine the underlying cause. Once the cause is recognized, the remedy is possible.

For a personalized evaluation, contact Kate Dalby at for an appointment, or call/text her at 703-203-5796.