The Compass Test Structure

Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

The ACT Compass test is used to measure a student's college readiness and place that student in the appropriate level courses. This lesson explains the structure and components of the Compass test.


As an entering college freshman, you may be asked to take the ACT Compass test. This test is designed and produced by American College Testing, or 'ACT'. Compass stands for 'Computer Adaptive Placement Assessment and Support System'. It is a computerized, untimed exam. Know that you cannot pass or fail this test. Instead, Compass is used to:

  • Determine your overall readiness for college-level courses
  • Determine your proper placement in remedial, standard, or advanced college courses

However, ACT has announced that it will stop producing the test by the end of 2016.

There are actually several different Compass tests. There are Compass tests available in these subject areas:

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

The tests vary from one another. For example, the Mathematics Placement Test is designed to measure a student's abilities in basic math skills, application, and analysis. It presents various math subjects and levels, from basic math to calculus.

The Essay Writing Test is quite different. It's known as 'e-write' and tests a student's writing ability by first providing a writing prompt. Students must then type a response, which will be scored based on sentence structure, writing strategy, and writing style.

To better understand the structure of Compass, let's take a closer look at one the tests in particular.

Reading Skills Test

The structure of the Compass Reading Skills Test is similar to the general structure of the writing and mathematics tests, so much of this information applies across the subject areas. Because reading skills are integral to all college coursework, this particular test is used to determine overall college readiness. It can also help place students in a multitude of courses in varying subject areas.

College students spend much of their time reading, no matter their field of study.
college student reading outside

The reading, writing, and math tests are multiple-choice, taken at a computer. The reading test is designed to determine whether or not the student has the reading skills necessary to succeed in standard, entry-level college courses typical of a college freshman. It has two main components:

  • Reading placement test
  • Reading diagnostics test

The Reading Placement Test evaluates three basic skills:

  • Reading comprehension
  • Vocabulary
  • Reader profile

In both the reading and the writing tests, the student is presented with five different types of passages with varying levels of difficulty. For reading comprehension, the student must answer questions that test the student's ability to refer, or find specific information, and to reason, or make logical inferences.

Like the math test, the questions generated are based on the student's correct responses and can increase in difficulty. There are 36% referring questions and 64% reasoning questions in the component of pool for the reading test. This is the overall pool of Compass reading test questions. Questions are randomly drawn from this group of potential multiple choice questions.

The passage types include:

  • Practical Reading, 26% of the pool
  • Prose Fiction, 11% of the pool
  • Humanities, 24% of the pool
  • Social Sciences, 17% of the pool
  • Natural Sciences, 22% of the pool

Vocabulary is tested 'in context', meaning there are questions centered on the meaning of a key word from the passage. The key word will often be an unfamiliar word. These questions require the student to determine the meaning of that key word by using other information from the passage.

Reader profile refers to the writer's audience. The student will encounter questions that test whether or not the student can determine the intended audience for the passage. Students may also be asked questions to see if they can identify the appropriate audience for a passage.

The Writing Skills Test additionally scores grammar and punctuation by asking students to properly edit the passages.

Diagnostics Tests

If the student's scores on a placement test are satisfactory to the college, then the student will likely be finished with the skills test. Otherwise the student will move on to the Diagnostics Test for that Compass subject. For example, the Tennessee Board of Regents mandates that all Tennessee colleges require the Reading Diagnostics Test for students with an ACT reading score lower than 19 or a Compass Reading Placement score lower than 83. There are secondary diagnostic exams available in math, reading, and writing.

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