ACT Changes that May be Good News for High School Students with ADHD

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

Standardized tests like the ACT can be extremely challenging for students with ADHD. The exams are long, requiring a level of sustained focus that is difficult for many students with ADHD to achieve. These are also not forgiving of “careless” mistakes, which are a hallmark symptom of ADHD. And they require students to perform well across multiple subject areas, which can be stressful for students with ADHD, who often have marked strengths and weaknesses.

Changes to the ACT, coming in September 2020, may help students with ADHD better manage some of these test-taking challenges. While the content of the ACT will remain the same (with English, math, reading, science, and writing sections), students will have the option to retake individual sections of the exam without having to retake the entire test. The first time they take the ACT, all students will still be required to complete the exam in its entirety. But with section retesting, any time they retake the exam, they can choose which sections they want to complete.

This can mean completing only one section during a testing session, or two or three sections if they prefer. So, if a student scores well on the English and reading sections and poorly on the math and science sections, for example, they can be more focused in their study efforts and retake only the math and science portions of the exam.  

For students with ADHD, who tend to have less predictable test performance, this means that they will not need to worry about putting their stronger section scores (like English and reading, in our example) in jeopardy when they retake the exam. There’s no limit on how many times a student can retake sections of the exam, but there are of course fees that apply, and the cost of multiple retakes can add up.  

When reporting scores to colleges, students will have the option of selecting their highest individual section scores along with an ACT Superscore, which is a composite score that reflects the average of the four best subject scores from each of the test attempts. So, colleges will have no indication of how many times a student completed each section.

A more minor change to the test will also help students with ADHD who may need to retake a section more than once. Students who take the computer-based version of the test will receive their score within just two days. With this quick turn-around, students will know which sections to focus on during the retest and can study and retake the sections fairly quickly, leaving enough time for an additional retake if it’s needed.

Standardized testing is stressful for all students, and it is especially stressful for students with ADHD. The upcoming changes to the ACT won’t eliminate all the stress, but they will help students with ADHD overcome some of the unique challenges that come with taking college admissions exams.



Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


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