The ACT Science Test

Written by tutor Ashley M.

The ACT Science Test is probably the least understood portion of the exam. Despite what its name suggests, it is not a science knowledge test. The ACT is not going to ask you to identify the steps of cell division, balance a chemical equation, or determine the velocity of a moving object. You do not need to have taken any specific science courses to be successful on the Science Test; the test makers recognize that students take many different classes, and that not everyone takes chemistry or physics.

Instead, the ACT Science Test is a specialized reading comprehension test. It utilizes many of the same skills that are tested in the ACT Reading section. Unlike the Reading Test, the Science Test also places heavy emphasis on data analysis. Passages may include charts, tables, and graphs in addition to text, and questions will ask students to use these in combination to analyze data and answer questions.

Format of the Science Test

There are seven “passages” in each Science Test, each with around five corresponding questions. The passages have a range of structures – some will be entirely text, others composed of several charts, tables, or graphs with the bare minimum of accompanying text. You can expect one of each extreme to appear on the Science Test, and the remaining five passages will fall somewhere on the spectrum in between.

Like their Reading Test counterparts, Science Test passages also have a variety of purposes. This “purpose” is the central task the passage is trying to accomplish. In Science passages, the purpose generally falls into one of three categories.

Research Summary Questions

The research summary category consists of a description of an experiment, or a series of experiments. These passages often contain text describing the experiment and charts, graphs, or tables providing the results of the experiment.

Data Representation Questions

The data representation category is passages that describe a scientific phenomenon and present some data associated with it.

Conflicting Viewpoint Questions

The conflicting viewpoint category consists of passages that present two opposing viewpoints on a scientific topic or phenomenon. These passages are often completely text-based, with no data representation at all.

There is generally one opposing viewpoints passage on each Science Test, and the remaining six are split between the other two categories.

Strategy for the Science Test

In addition to structural differences, Science Test passages vary widely in subject matter. The passages cover a variety of topics, from biology, chemistry, and physics to astronomy, oceanography, and ecology. These topics only provide a framework for the passage; you do not need any specific knowledge of these subjects. Any specialized terms (often printed in italics) that are needed will be defined for you in the introductory lines of the passage, so always remember to look for them! Any topic can appear in any format.

While you certainly do not need to have taken courses in all of the subjects you will see on the Science Test, a good basic exposure to some general concepts is important. A basic understanding of the scientific method, the difference between dependent and independent events, and terms like control are necessary as the test will assume a familiarity with these concepts and will not define them for you. Everything else you bring to the test is extra, but still potentially useful. Recognizing scientific conventions (such as how chemical formulas are written, how Latin names of organisms are written) can help you navigate passages more quickly, but essential understanding of the passages and answers to questions will never hinge on subject-specific details that are not explained in the passage.

Questions for the ACT Science Test will generally ask you to use the following skills:

  • Read and interpret data from charts, tables, and graphs.
  • Extrapolate data (take info that is there and draw conclusions about the results of additional tests or data)
  • Connect data from different charts, tables, graphs, and bodies of text and draw conclusions
  • Compare and contrast opposing viewpoints

The most important thing to remember for the Science Test is that everything you need to answer the questions can be found in the passage – just like in the Reading Test. You do not need to bring any outside information (aside from basic terms), and you will not be at a disadvantage just because you did not take chemistry or physics. It should be approached in much the same way as the Reading Test, though the Science Test questions are usually more straightforward. Do not overanalyze questions – many of them are fairly simple. Look for specialized definitions, take stock of how the information is being presented to you, and use common sense!

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