The math on the ACT has been increasing in difficulty, if not obscurity, for most high school students. We face the following situation remarkably often: a parent contacts us, insisting that her junior in high school absolutely must take the ACT, because she was given a diagnostic test from another prep company that indicated the student’s performance would be marginally higher on the ACT than on the CollegeBoard's favorite college entrance exam (SAT).

I ask, “What math class is your daughter (or son) currently taking?” Even if the reply is “pre-calc” or a course of even higher nobility for a junior, I don't assume everything is going to go well for the test.

Now, I will aver that precalculus classes vary widely, especially among public and private schools around the San Francisco bay area. For many schools on the SF peninsula (and in the city itself), there exist multiple “lanes” of precalc. These lanes signify aptitude in a sense: normal, honors, AP (there isn't really an AP precalculus class, but parents tend to identify with that sort of ranking comfortably). The names of the courses sound as follows: Algebra 2/trig, intro to trigonometry, precalculus, trig/analyt (trigonometry with analytic geometry), IAC, or simply Analysis Honors (my Palo Alto clients know this name well, as their sons and daughters cry from night terrors almost weekly). The short of it all might be easier to digest by comparing these to what the parents remember (or have forgotten) learning:

Geometry

Algebra

Trigonometry

Calculus

What is missing from the above cycle, and what is etching a more permanent mark on the ACT, is Statistics.

Of course, every high school in the bay area now offers AP Statistics, usually as a supplement to (or as a replacement of) the ever-dreaded C-word... Calculus. Statistics isn't a terribly difficult class, at least at the high school level, but most juniors taking the ACT in the fall or winter (September, October, or December test dates) will find some charts, graphs, and word problems difficult to understand due to a lack of familiarity.

Timing plays the key factor in this conundrum. Students will perform best after learning statistics material (mean, median, mode, range, quartiles, standard deviations, histograms, stem and leaf plots, etc.), but also want to sit for the ACT before their second semester of junior year. Getting the material under their belts before the spring crunch is usually the driving factor, and even regular precalculus classes don't cover the scope of content on the ACT math section until second semester (depending on school district). Getting technical for a moment, the ACT math section goes as far as the law of sines, the law of cosines, histograms, stem and leaf plots, inverse trig functions, combinatorics (a fancy word, but a useful math), and logarithms. Logarithms are covered even earlier in a math career (typically algebra 2 and above), but students' memories tend to grow hazy when approaching that particular topic. It's okay. Most of the above material can be hashed through in a session or two with a quality tutor at any firm.

I've rambled on enough about this change, but I just want to advise parents that a student's current math level, though seemingly adequate, may have some holes.

Footnote to the above: the new version of the SAT, which we barely eagerly await for the March 2016 date, will not be much different from the ACT, especially in its math content. The new SAT overlaps in a number of ways, especially on the statistics front and, as is merited by our Big Data craze, is to be expected.

Thank you for reading through to the end of this, and expect updates soon as we continue our Changes to the ACT series.

Very best,

Ryan