(This page on the ACT Science Myth is part 2 of my 7-part series on the “SAT vs ACT” issue.)

ACT Science Isn’t Really Science

The conventional wisdom says that the ACT science section tests a student’s knowledge of science. This idea seems to come from the name itself–at first blush, it seems like a pretty reasonable assumption that something called the Science section is a test of Science.

But trained test-takers know better.

One of the funamental rules about standardized tests is that they never, ever, ever test exactly what they claim to be testing. (They can’t, because standardization makes it impossible, which is why I recommend gaming standardized tests). So if you know standardized tests, you know the ACT isn’t testing how well you’ve done in your science classes.

Here’s proof:

a sample ACT science question from the ACT's free practice test on actstudent.org

This science question was taken from the ACT's free practice test on actstudent.org.

This is a screenshot of one of the free ACT science passages from the ACT’s web site. It shows a graph of thermal conductivity versus temperature for four different rock types. The passage that it’s taken from deals with an experiment to determine which type of rock should be used as a burial place for radioactive material.

As you’re probably aware, most high school curriculums in the world don’t cover geology, which means that almost nobody taking this test has ever studied anything related to the ideas in this passage.

So you don’t answer the vast majority of ACT science questions by having an encyclopedic knowledge of science. You answer them by looking at the relevant table, diagram, or graph–you’ll always find the answers somewhere on the page.

(This, by the way, is just one more piece of evidence that all multiple-choice standardized tests are really reading comprehension tests at heart.)

Now, every once in a while (roughly a few times per test), you do see a question on the ACT science section that requires some outside knowledge of basic science. Here’s the one from the free online ACT test:

An ACT science question involving outside knowledge. Question appears on the ACT's free online test.

This ACT science question (from the ACT's free online practice test) requires a little outside knowledge.

Don’t let that question fool you! It talks about Europa, UV light, molecules, and so on, but what it’s really asking you is this: “Which of the following things is present in water?” So if you know that water contains oxygen (which is something you know if you remember that H2O is the formula for water), you can answer this question. You can also answer it if you know that chlorine, methane, and nitrogen are NOT in water.

The fact that H2O is the formula for water doesn’t really count as advanced scientific knowledge in my book.

But there’s more: Even if you happen to forget for a minute that water contains oxygen, you can still get a 35 or a 36 on the Science section of the ACT by answering all the other questions on the section using only the material that’s provided right there on the page.

So the idea that the ACT science section measures how much science you’ve learned in high school is something I disagree with strongly. Instead, I’d say the ACT science section is basically a combination of the ACT reading section and the ACT math section, with some graphs and tables and things thrown in.

This explains why so many good science students come to me after getting very frustrated with the ACT science section, just as a lot of good math students come to me very frustrated with math on the SAT or ACT math sections.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that the ACT science section is inherently difficult. If you look at it the right way, it’s just as easy as the rest of the test. But you have to be looking at it the right way, and the right way on ACT Science has almost nothing to do with the science you’ve learned in school.

Next: The SAT Vocabulary Myth