Last updated
Last verified

Updated 2016

  • USA
Education context

While the US Government provides funding and national standards for schools, authority over public (state-funded) school education in the US rests primarily with individual state departments of education. As most policies are set at the state and local levels, the school curriculum can vary from state to state and even between school districts within a state.

Formal education is generally mandatory from age 5 / 6 to 16, varying slightly by state. School-level education is organised into ‘grades’. Grades K (kindergarten) – 12 correspond with Years 1–13 in the UK.

Age Level of study US grade UK year
11 – 13 Middle school 6th – 8th Years 7 – 9
14 – 18 High school 9th – 12th (freshman – senior) Years 10 – 13

Although there is no national curriculum, the general content of the high school curriculum across the country has many consistencies. The state will usually set a list of basic required courses for high school graduation. These may include English, mathematics, foreign language, physical education, art and / or music, general science, and social studies (a subject that combines history, government and geography).

Students continue to have flexibility in choosing the level of their classes and elective subjects.

Many high schools will also have ‘tracks’ for students wishing to study a four-year university bachelor's degree (BA / BSc), pursue a vocational or technical degree at a two-year college, or enter the workforce following high school.

Students are generally assessed continually throughout the semester by a combination of tests, mid-term and final exams, essays, quizzes, homework assignments, classroom participation, group work, projects and attendance. This assessment culminates with a final grade for each course awarded at the end of the semester. Marks can be given as letters (A+, A, B+, B, etc), or as numbers out of 100%. These grades are averaged over the student’s high school career, resulting in a Grade Point Average (GPA). Students may also receive a class rank, ranking his / her GPA amongst other members of his / her grade (year in school). On satisfactory completion of 12th grade and the state graduation requirements, the student receives a high school diploma (the requirements for which are set by each state).

Awarding organisation
  • International

The ACT is a standardised syllabus-based test aimed at university entrance.

There are two versions of the ACT, the ACT (without writing) and the ACT with writing. Both versions contain four multiple choice tests:

  • English
  • methematics
  • reading
  • science

The ACT with writing includes an additional writing test.

Subject areas

The ACT is composed of four multiple choice tests.

Test area No. of questions Time allowed (mins) Areas measured




Standard written English and rhetorical skills.

Usage / Mechanics (45-60%)

Rhetorical Skills (40-55%)




Mathematical skills students have typically acquired in courses taken up to the beginning of grade 12.

Pre-algebra/Elementary Algebra (35-45%)

Intermediate Algebra / Coordinate Geometry (30-40%)

Plane Geometry / Trigonometry (25-35%)




Reading comprehension.

Social Studies (25%)

Natural Sciences (25%)

Literary Narrative (25%) or Prose Fiction (25%)Humanities (25%)




The interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem- solving skills required in the natural sciences.

Test score based on all 40 questions.

There is also an optional essay-based writing test.

Optional Writing Test

1 prompt


Writing skills emphasised in high school English classes and in entry- level college composition courses.



Level 3 – acceptable as a group qualification satisfying HE general entrance requirements.

For further information on the qualification level you may wish to refer to UK NARIC, which is the UK body responsible for providing comparability of overseas qualifications.


Each ACT subject test score ranges from 1 to 36; all scores are integers.

The optional writing test is scored from 2 –12.  That score is the average of four domain scores – Ideas and Analysis, Development and Support, Organization, and Language Use and Conventions – which also range from 2-12.


The mandatory subjects within the ACT (English, mathematics, reading, science) are all assessed through multiple choice tests ranging from 35 minutes to 60 minutes in length and between 40 and 75 items (see Structure, above). The optional writing test is a 40 minute essay-based test.

Tests are available on five occasions each year at designated test centres.

Each multiple choice question correctly answered is worth one raw point; incorrect answers are not penalised. Raw scores are converted to ‘scale scores.’ Composite scores and each subject test score range from 1 (low) to 36 (high). The composite score is the average of the four mandatory test scores, rounded to the nearest whole number. To improve the result, students can retake the test: 57% of students who retake the ACT improve their scores, 21% score the same, and 22% see their scores decrease.

Contribution of assessment components to overall grade

The composite score is the average of the four test scores earned during a single test administration, rounded to the nearest whole number. Individual forms of the ACT tests are equated to ensure comparability across tests.

Students taking the optional writing test receive five additional scores reflecting performance on the writing test only: a writing test score (scaled 2-12) and four domain scores (also scaled 2-12).

Guided/notional learning hours notes

Although syllabus-based there is no formal teaching time associated with the ACT.

Key issues for UK HE admissions

HEPs may wish to make offers using a range of indicators – including GPA, AP results, ACT / SAT scores – for example requiring an overall GPA of 4.0 together with a score of 29 in their ACT.

Student choice – admissions tests in the US allow students to choose which results they allow universities to see. They may choose only to show their best results, or may prefer to show results from all test occasions. Some universities do request that all attempts are disclosed.

Superscoring – some US universities allow, or prefer, the process of ‘superscoring’ results of the admissions tests. This means that for students who have sat tests on more than one occasion, the university selects the best combination of subject scores achieved by the candidate, combining different subject scores from different test occasions if this provides a ‘better’ composite score than a single occasion. This advantages the student, by providing a higher ‘score’ but may also benefit the university in terms of measures of student average scores on entry.

Access to admissions tests – although it has traditionally been the case that students would have sat for either the SAT or the ACT tests, it is becoming increasingly common in the US for students to sit for both – this is seen as an advantage since some students perform significantly better in one compared to the other.

Equivalence to SAT:  Because the SAT test changed significantly in March 2016, ACT does not recognize any “concordance” between ACT and new SAT scores at this time. Until such time that sufficient data exists to draw reliable conclusions, there is no concordance table that is reliable.

Timing of assessments/results for learners

ACT tests are available on five opportunities per year in September, October, December, April and June.

Scores are generally available for viewing 2.5 weeks after test dates; reports are released three – eight weeks after.

Qualification dates notes

Current. Established in 1959. Optional writing test available from 2005.

Reporting and certification information

2015 results – % of students at each score range

ACT points English % Mathematics % Reading % Science %

33 – 36





28 – 32





24 – 27





20 – 23





16 – 19





13 – 15





  1 – 12 13 1 7 6


Progression information/access to HE within home country

Students are assessed for university entry based on a variety of information including:

Grade Point Average (GPA) – the following is a general percentage letter grade scale for classes taken at US schools:

Letter grade Percentage GPA
A 90 – 100% 4.0
B 80 – 89% 3.0
C 70 – 79% 2.0
D 65 – 69% 1.0
F (fail) Below 65% 0

Class rank within the year group.

Rigour of classes taken (AP, honours, regular).

Admissions tests: ACT / SAT I / SAT II (subject tests) are used to supplement secondary school record and help admissions officers put local data – such as grades and class rank – in a national context.

Universities often require a threshold score in admissions tests.

The most competitive US institutions will require ACT students to take the ACT with writing. ACT or SAT I on their own are not normally sufficient for competitive HE admissions.