What’s on the ACT Science Test?

The ACT Science Test is one of the shorter sections, with 40 questions to be completed in 35 minutes. All of the questions are multiple choice, with four answer choices each.

The topics covered on the ACT Science test include:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Earth science (Astronomy, Geology, Meteorology)

The ACT Science Test is split into 6 to 7 separate passages, which you can complete in any order you wish. Each passage has an average of 5 to 6 questions. (This gives you an average of 5 to 6 minutes per passage, to read and answer all questions).

The 7 passages on the ACT Science test come in three types:

  • Data Interpretation (35% of the test, or about 14 questions on 2 to 3 passages)
  • Research Summaries (50% of the test, or about 20 questions on 3 to 4 passages)
  • Conflicting Viewpoints (15% of the test, or about 6 questions on 1 passage)

You are probably wondering what the questions on each of these passage types will ask of you. Let’s get into that now, starting with Data Interpretation.

Data Interpretation

A Data Interpretation passage will ask you to analyze data and draw conclusions. The data in these passages is presented in various formats, such as:

  • Tables, each with two or more columns (variables)
  • Figures, such as charts or graphs (including bar graphs, line graphs, and scatter plots).

*Be sure to pay special attention to the units indicated in tables or on the axes for graphs!

Some of the questions you encounter will be straightforward. For example, a question may ask you to simply read the tables and figures to find the information you need.

In some cases, these questions may require a simple arithmetic operation to find the answer. For example, you may need to subtract two numbers in a table to find out the amount of increase or decrease over time.

Other questions may ask you to make connections between different methods of presenting data. For example, a question may ask you to look at the data presented in a table, and choose the answer that represents a graph that illustrates the data correctly.

Are the majority of people very very happy that it’s Friday?

Still other questions may ask you to make predictions about data, based on the information you are given. To answer these questions, it will be important to note any trends in the data. For example, in a graph, is the function increasing, decreasing, or flat? Does the graph represent either linear or exponential growth?

These questions may ask you to interpolate (make predictions about data points between the data given in the table) or extrapolate (make predictions beyond the data given in the table).

For example, let’s say we are given the following information:

We can see that the relationship between the two variables is linear: every time we burn 4 more kilograms of the substance, 8 more liters of gas are emitted.

Let’s say we want to predict the amount of gas emitted when we burn 4 kilograms of the substance. This will involve interpolation, since 4 kilograms is half way between 2 and 6 (the first and second rows in the table).

The relationship is linear, so the volume of gas will be halfway between 4 and 12 (the first and second entries in the right column). So, 8 liters of gas will be emitted when 4 kilograms of the substance is burned.

On the other hand, let’s say we want to extrapolate to figure out the amount of gas emitted when 14 kilograms of the substance is burned. We would start at the third row, and add 8 liters to the 20 liters in column 2. This tells us that 28 liters of gas are emitted when 14 kilograms of the substance is burned.

It is also important to recognize which variables are independent (inputs) and which are dependent (outputs), and how one impacts the other.

Think about the following questions when examining data:

  • Do the data in a scatter plot show any correlation? If so, is the correlation positive or negative?
  • Does the graph show a linear relationship? An exponential relationship? Or something else?
  • In tables with three or more columns, are any variables being held constant within two or more rows in a table? Why – what does this tell us?
  • When two or more functions are plotted together on one graph, what does this illustrate? What do the functions have in common, and where do they differ?
Research Summaries

A Research Summaries passage will ask questions that test your knowledge and familiarity with the scientific method (making observations, formulating a hypothesis, and asking & answering questions).

A Research Summaries passage will include a description of two or more related experiments. Your job is to note the similarities and differences in the experiments, and figure out the effects of these changes.

As you read through the passage, ask yourself questions, such as:

  • Why did the researcher set up the experiment this way? For example, why was a 2nd substance added to the test tube? (The answer to your question may become clear as you read further along in the passage – don’t panic if you don’t know right away! The purpose of asking these questions is to start thinking like a scientist. This practice will help you to predict the type of questions you will see on the test before you even get to the questions).
  • What are the variables in the experiment? Which are independent and dependent?
  • Which variables are being kept the same, and which are being changed, from one experiment to the next?
  • What is the effect of the changes made between different experiments?

Some of the questions on these passages will ask you to compare and contrast the experiments or trials. For example, during which of the four trials did the object move the farthest from its starting point?

Some of the more difficult questions will be hypothetical. They will require you to look at the trends in the data from the experiment and also understand how a change would affect the results. For example:

  • In Experiment 1, we used 50 mL of a 5% saline solution. What would happen if we used 50mL of a 10% saline solution?
  • In Experiment 2, we used a 5 pound weight. What would the resulting force be if we used a 10 pound weight instead?
Conflicting Viewpoints

A Conflicting Viewpoints passage presents the arguments of two different scientists. They disagree on the topic at hand, and you will need to compare and contrast their hypotheses.

We clearly have conflicting viewpoints!

You will need to think about what each scientist believes and identify his hypothesis. You will also need to determine what evidence he uses as support for his position.

One way to do this is to take brief notes on the passage. Remember, you don’t want to write an essay – keep the notes short!

You can use a simple 3-column table for your notes. In the left column, write down the hypothesis, ideas, and supporting points for Scientist A. In the right column, write down the hypothesis, ideas, and supporting points for Scientist B. In the middle column, write down anything they share in common.

Some questions in this section will ask which hypothesis is more consistent with the beliefs of either Scientist A or Scientist B. The questions may also ask about what one of the scientists would likely believe, based on what information was presented.

Another type of question presents new information, and asks how this would affect the hypothesis of one or both scientists. Again, you will need to make an inference based on what was presented about that scientist and his supporting arguments.

Other Considerations

Here are a few other things to look out for on the ACT Science test – forewarned is forearmed!

Beware of getting “tunnel vision” – that is, looking only at what is suggested to you, rather than the whole picture. For example, let’s say that a question asks you to draw a conclusion “based on the results summarized in Table 1”. Remember that you might need information from other tables and figures, or from details in the written passage. You may not be able to answer the question from the information in Table 1 alone!

To answer the questions, you may not need advanced knowledge of the concepts presented. You can answer most of the questions based on what you read in the passage. However, it never hurts to brush up on your biology, chemistry, physics, and earth sciences!

Be sure to brush up on your sciences…

Remember that there is no calculator allowed on the ACT Science section! You may not be asked to do any intense calculations, but you should be comfortable doing some basic arithmetic and comparisons of numbers. You should also be comfortable with various scientific scales (for example, very large or small numbers, expressed using scientific notation and exponents).


There is a wide variety of topics you may see on the ACT Science test. However, if you know what to expect, you will be in a much better position to prepare for the test.

Your best bet is to start early and get in a little practice each day. This will help you time to figure out your strengths and weaknesses, and devote more time to the types of passages you need to work on.

If you need some guidance with the test prep process, the best thing to do is schedule a free consultation call with one of Testive’s Student Success Advisors!

By |2020-04-01T18:12:18+00:00April 1st, 2020|ACT, Uncategorized|

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