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What is the Compass Test?

Instructor: Ashley Dugger

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

The ACT COMPASS test is just one tool colleges use to assess a student's readiness for college-level courses. This lesson explains what the ACT COMPASS test is, and why it is used.

Preparing for College

These days, many students start taking college-level courses while still in high school. Many schools offer Advanced Placement, or 'AP' courses, which allow students to focus on a subject intensively on a college level. Others offer International Baccalaureate, or 'IB' courses, which are designed to delve deeply and holistically into an issue using college-level curriculum. Some high schools even offer dual credit courses, where students can participate in college courses and even receive college credit for them.

These courses can obviously give some high school students a 'peek' into what college-level courses are like, and can therefore help prepare them for college. But what about the high school students who don't take these classes? How can institutions be sure these students are prepared for college-level courses? Well, colleges widely examine transcripts, high school grades, class rank, and standardized test scores to help place their students in the appropriate level courses. Some colleges also utilize the ACT COMPASS test, though its use is being phased out.

Some high schoolers experience college level courses while others do not.
Some high schoolers graduate with college credit.

The test was developed by American College Testing, or 'ACT', and stands for 'Computer Adaptive Placement Assessment and Support System'. The test is commonly known simply as the 'Compass test' and has been administered to countless incoming freshman students since 1983. It can be a helpful assessment, but many feel the use of multiple measures is most valuable without dependence on a standardized test. Though still popular, use of the test has dwindled. As such, ACT recently announced it will stop producing the test by the end of 2016.

What is COMPASS?

The Compass test is a computer-based test. It is not timed. It's most often scheduled through and given in the college's Testing Center. Your college will let you know if it requires or suggests the Compass test prior to your course registration.

ACT COMPASS is a computerized, un-timed test.
ACT COMPASS is taken on a computer.

The test is used for two primary purposes. First, it helps determine a student's overall readiness for college-level courses. Second, it helps determine a student's proper placement in remedial, traditional, or advanced college courses. College counselors use the results of the Compass test to determine whether a student should register for a particular college-level course, or instead register for a course that will prepare the student for the particular college course.

For example, let's say Calvin plans to major in Engineering and is required to take college Calculus. The Compass test can determine whether or not Calvin is ready for the Calculus course. Perhaps he is ready to take an advanced Calculus course, such as Multivariable Calculus. Or perhaps he needs to take an introductory course first, like Pre-Calculus.

Note that students cannot pass or fail the Compass test. The results are simply used to best address student needs and ensure college success. Students generally receive their score reports immediately upon completion of the test, which include course placement suggestions.

What Does COMPASS Test?

There are Compass tests available in several different subject areas:

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

The Reading Placement Test measures a student's reading comprehension. Students are tested on their ability to find specific information in the reading passages and to make logical inferences from those passages.

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