How the Compass Test is Scored

Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has taught and written various law courses.

Some colleges use the ACT Compass test to assess students' readiness for college-level courses and place students in appropriate classes. This lesson explains the ACT Compass test and how it is scored.

ACT Compass

'It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you played the game.' That famous quote from the early 20th Century came from sports writer Grantland Rice. It's a nice thought, but is it often true? Not in academics. There's typically a score - a pass or a fail. You won, or you lost.

The ACT Compass test is an exception. Used in colleges since 1983, the test was developed and is produced by American College Testing, or ACT. Compass stands for Computer Adaptive Placement Assessment and Support System. It's a computerized and untimed test mostly given to entering freshman students. Unlike most college assessments, there's no passing or failing the Compass test. Students receive score reports immediately upon completion of the test.

The Compass is a computerized and untimed test given mostly to entering freshmen.
An entering college freshman takes the Compass test on a laptop computer.

Purpose of ACT Compass

If there's no passing or failing, you may be wondering the purpose of this unusual test. Colleges use the ACT Compss for two main reasons:

  • To determine a student's overall readiness for college-level courses
  • To determine a student's proper placement in remedial, standard, or advanced college courses

It may not always seem like it, but colleges have no interest in seeing students fail. It's in the best interests of both the students and the institutions for students to progress successfully through their college educations and graduate with degrees. Failing students can affect instructors' reputations, professors' tenure tracks, and block financial aid.

College graduation rates often depend on the appropriate selection of courses.
These college graduates are proud of their degrees and eager to enter the workforce.

That's why colleges use a variety of assessments, like grade point averages (GPA) and class ranks, to determine whether or not a student is properly prepared for the rigors of college. The information can be used to match a student's preparedness with the appropriate classes.

The ACT Compass is just one more tool, though keep in mind that critics suggest it not be used alone. In fact, recent studies suggest the test isn't an accurate indicator of whether or not a student is capable of passing a standard-level course. Therefore, experts say it shouldn't be relied upon when choosing whether or not a student requires placement in remedial courses. Colleges are using the test less than in years past, and ACT says it plans to eventually phase out the use of Compass.

ACT Compass Scores

In the meantime, colleges are using the test and students are curious to know what their scores mean. First, note that there are several different Compass tests. They are:

  • Reading skills
  • Writing skills
  • Essay writing
  • Mathematics placement
  • English as a second language placement

Different colleges, and sometimes states, set their own guidelines for what is considered college-ready based on each test. 'College-ready' means the student has the knowledge and skills required to successfully complete entry-level, credit-bearing college courses without the need for remedial courses.

For example, the state of Ohio requires a score of 69 or above on the writing skills Compass for the student to be considered college-ready. Otherwise, that student will be placed in remedial or introductory English courses. Ohio requires a 65 or above on the mathematics placement Compass to be considered college-ready. Otherwise, the student will be placed in an introductory course such as pre-Algebra rather than algebra.

Students will receive a score for each Compass test taken. Based on those scores, the student will receive general recommendations. This section of the scoring report lets you know which courses your college recommends for you. Note that recommendations vary between colleges due to available courses and differences in the way colleges interpret the scores. A 75 might place a student in algebra at one college, but qualify the student for calculus at another.

Initial & Placement Domain

Some of your scores might also show 'domains.' For example, the mathematics placement test adjusts to the student's skills as the student takes the test. The difficulty level increases as the student correctly answers questions. While it starts with basic math, it can increase through different subject areas and sections up to calculus. There's no set number of questions. Each college pre-determines the number of correct answers needed before advancing to the next subject area, and the test is complete when Compass has enough data to suggest a placement.

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