The History of the ACT

University-Level Standardized Testing Before the ACT

Widespread university attendance is a relatively recent phenomenon, and postsecondary education was historically the privilege of a very small segment of the American population. During the 19th century, students typically gained acceptance to universities by passing their preferred institutions' own admission tests and/or graduating from high schools that were certified by those institutions. Around 1900, a group of college presidents developed a standardized test that became known as the "College Boards." Combined with research on intelligence testing conducted by the U.S. Army over the next 25 years, the College Boards would evolve into the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which students first took in 1926. The SAT, as this test would come to be known, gained widespread acceptance over the next 30 years.

E.F. Lindquist and the Creation of the ACT

The key figure in the initial development of the ACT was Everett Franklin Lindquist (1901-1978), who was a Professor of Education at the University of Iowa. Lindquist had been working on standardized testing since the 1920s, and one problem he saw with the SAT was the fact that this assessment purported to evaluate theoretical reasoning skills as opposed to practical knowledge. He set out to develop an examination that would emphasize the latter, which he saw as more useful for university studies. The ACT was the result of a team effort led by Lindquist and University of Iowa Registrar Ted McCarrel, and the test was first administered to about 75,000 students in 1959. The notion of testing for academic achievement rather than innate intelligence has been the guiding philosophy of the ACT for its entire existence.

Structure of the Original ACT and Early Expansion

The first ACT was a four-part exam, with 45-minute sections on English, Mathematics, Social Studies, and Natural Sciences. The original ACT used the 36-point scoring scale that is still in place today. The ACT quickly became a viable competitor to the SAT. One reason for this was a relatively simple matter of geography. The SAT was created and used by highly selective universities in the Northeastern United States, while the ACT's Midwestern roots helped establish the test in that part of the country (these regional preferences have been remarkably persistent, with the SAT currently more popular on the coasts and the ACT the favored choice in middle America). The ACT also came to be seen as a credible alternative to the ACT by a sizable number of educators at many different types of postsecondary institutions.

Further ACT Development

The ACT was revised significantly in the 1980s, and the new version of the test was first administered to students in 1989. This so-called "enhanced ACT" featured a Science Reasoning section and a Reading section, which respectively replaced the Natural Sciences and Social Studies sections on the old test. Competition with the SAT has been cited as a major reason for these changes, and there is little question that this competition has benefited both assessments. ACT added a Writing section in 2005, which was clearly a response to the SAT's Essay section. Since 2011, the ACT has been taken by a larger number of students than the SAT, and approximately 60% of the high school class of 2017 (more than 2 million test-takers) opted for the former assessment. The ACT is currently accepted by all American universities that require standardized testing for admission. A digital version of the test is now available both in the United States and internationally.

The ACT Organization

ACT, Inc., the non-profit organization that administers and develops the ACT assessment, was founded in 1959 by Lindquist and McCarrel. Headquartered in Iowa City, Iowa, ACT is known for many programs related to education at the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels. ACT conducts and publishes research on educational topics, such as the annual Condition of College and Career Readiness, a report on U.S. high school graduates. Some ACT programs are intended for students at lower grade levels, such as ACT Aspire, which the organization claims can help predict future ACT scores for students in grades 3-10. The organization also has a voice in educational policy, and it has published position papers on a variety of issues in education and workforce development. ACT currently has a workforce of more than 1,000 people and is led by CEO Marten Roorda.