ACT Science: A Closer Look

By  Layton Funk

Published on  October 3, 2019


What Is This Section?

The ACT Science section contains 7 passages with 40 total questions to be completed in 35 minutes.  These passages range in all sorts of topics, but always fall within three categories of format: Data Representation, Research Summary, and Conflicting Viewpoints.  There is usually one Conflicting Viewpoints passage, two or three Research Summaries, and two or three Data Representation passages. The content contained in the passages can range between, but not limited to, biology, chemistry, physics, geology, and astronomy. While the content and topics are widely varied, the point of the exam is not to test you on your knowledge of the material.  Rather, it is testing you on your scientific skills like reasoning, interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and problem-solving.  Knowing the facts and topics within the experiments, research, and viewpoints ahead of time definitely will help, especially on basic knowledge students should have learned in school, but there is no way to know what is going to be on the exam.  Studying will consist of practicing science passage after science passage, sharpening your scientific skills, but not memorizing information.

Scientific Skills

The scientific method is an extremely important part of figuring out the questions and analyzing the data and passages that will be put before you.  Reading a passage and understanding each part of the experiment or research being described helps immensely in dissecting the questions and getting them correct.  Knowing how to read and interpret graphs, tables, and charts is a part of this. Always read the x and y-axes and make sure you understand what they mean.  In a table or chart, the columns and rows are going to be labelled appropriately along with the title and should be self-explanatory.  If not, context from the passage will allow you to interpret those visual aids quite well. Another scientific skill the ACT asks of you to display is comparing and contrasting the viewpoints of two scientists.  The viewpoints can range from being wildly different to fairly similar. Either way, you must be able to look at each argument or set of facts and see the merit, flaws, and differences in each.

1. The Scientific Method

Why Are These Skills Important?

Being able to read a graph, table, or chart is an invaluable skill to have just based on the ACT Science section. It is riddle with them and without analyzing the figures associated with the passages, there is no way to do well on the section. Other sections (and other tests, of course) might have figures like these, so practicing the interpretation and analysis of scientific/data driven figures is very important.  On top of that, the scientific method is a great foundation for proceeding with logical reasoning. Using a step-by-step process to break down any problem or issue will help you get to the truth, understand it better, and ultimately enhance your education, professional life, and view of the world as a whole. Additionally, analyzing and comparing conflicting viewpoints of two scientists (or any two parties, really) is an incredibly ubiquitous skill to have. Whether it be science or law or literature or even every day conversation, the ability to look at and compare two perspectives with objectivity will help aid you down the road (and on the ACT, of course!).

A Breakdown of Each Passage Type

Data Representation

These passages will have you read and interpret graphs, scatterplots, tables, and other figures and then explain the information that was presented in them.  Passages like this will typically not have experiment descriptions and will be very straightforward in their testing purpose. As an example, passage five in this official ACT science practice web page is exactly in the category of Data Representation.  Questions will require you to understand the axes of plots and graphs while interpreting the data represented in them.  The differences between data points, knowing which labels or pieces of information the question is asking of you, interpretation of trends in the data, and even doing some basic math or analysis of data is necessary.

Quick Tips:

  • Mark down in the figures what information is being asked
  • Look for trends in the data (increasing, decreasing, random)
  • Keep track of the units the figures are using (kg, cm, ft/s, etc.)
  • Always check the title, legend, and axes of any figure
  • Make sure you know the scale of any figure you read (does it start from 0? How much does each line represent? What are the units?)
  • Typically 4-6 questions each

Research Summary

This type of passage will outline the set-up, methods, and results of experiments done by students or scientists.  Each step or stage of the experiments will have headings like “Trial,” “Study,” or “Test,” and may have some sort of table or chart with the data captured in the experiment(s).  Again, a good example of one of these passages is in this official ACT science practice web page in passage three. The questions involved in these passages ask you to read and interpret the design, results, and conclusion of the experiment(s).  They also might ask you to hypothesize what might happen if the experiment is changed in certain ways or how to change the experiment for the better.  While knowing the content involved would help, it is not necessary to get any of the answers right as they are written for anyone with general knowledge and good test-taking skills to answer.

Quick Tips:

  • What are the variables? Which is independent, dependent, and controlled?
  • What is the main purpose of the experiment(s)?
  • Keep track of the differences between experiments (methods, data, control)
  • Use your figure-reading skills from Data Representation effectively
  • Always keep the scientific method in mind!
  • Typically 5-6 questions each

Conflicting Viewpoints

The final, and least common, type of passage in the ACT Science section is Conflicting Viewpoints.  These are similar to the reading passages in the ACT and SAT in which you read two passages, compare and contrast their perspectives, and then answer questions about them. These types of passages typically give students a hard time as questions are meant to muddy the waters between the opinions of the two authors.  A single situation or problem (which you may or may not know about prior to the exam) will be the topic of discussion/debate. You must only look at their stances and not put your own spin on it, unless otherwise requested by the questions. There will almost never be any figures attached to these passages as displayed in this official ACT example in passage one.  Conflicting opinions/viewpoints may be centered around theories, hypotheses, or even applications of scientific research in a multitude of topics.

Quick Tips:

  • Read the first passage, note their stance, then read the second passage 
  • Pay close attention to the similarities and differences between the authors
  • Mark these differences down when you see them
  • Know the final stance/conclusion of each author
  • Read the questions and answers carefully, making sure not to confuse the authors
  • Typically 7 questions

Types of Questions

  • Specific Detail
    • Read a description, hypothesis, figure, etc. and report what it says
    • Understand how an experiment/passage progresses and what happens
    • Check the context/location of the evidence
    • Pay attention to the labels/titles of figures
  • Pattern Analysis
    • Identify and interpret trends or relationships among data
    • Look at what is measured/recorded and consider how the factors correlate
    • How do the results relate to each other?
    • Predict what will happen beyond the parameters given
  • Knowledge and Logic
    • Interpret why researchers/students took specific actions 
    • What are the implications of the hypothesis and results?
    • Recall basic scientific knowledge (see pages 10-11)
    • Utilize the scientific method and interpret its usage in the passage
  • Compare and Contrast
    • Weigh the similarities and differences between two viewpoints/experiments
    • Understand what each scientist believes and where they differ
    • Knowledge of the scientific method is important here, too!

General Exam Tips

  • Don’t try too hard to understand everything in each passage as the only information you need to know is what the questions ask of you
  • If you are pressed for time, just skim over the passages (not Conflicting Viewpoints) while taking note of how many figures/experiments there are and what the main point is
  • Don’t read every little bit of every figure, only take note/look up what the questions ask
  • Utilize process of elimination
  • Get used to every type of figure, graph, chart, table, etc. (the ACT makes weird ones!)
  • Read questions and their answers carefully and completely
  • Make sure you know the scale of any figure you read (does it start from 0? How much does each line represent? What are the units?)
  • Scan the passages, reading in the most comfortable order (leaving the hardest for last)
  • Write down notes, mark evidence, and always read every part of the passages!
  • Find what your weakness is – content or time management – and start studying by taking Science section after Science section, timing yourself
  • Keep track of the time, but don’t rush! Nothing wastes more time than hurrying
  • Don’t move on from a passage until you finish it
  • Don’t leave any questions blank
  • If there is a question you’re not sure about, mark it and come back to it. No sense dwelling on a question for an overly long time
  • Do the short/easy passages first
  • Stay on top of bubbling – if you skip around, make sure you bubble the right questions!
  • Practice, practice, practice

Some Important Scientific Terms

Hypothesis – explanation made based on limited evidence as starting point for experimentation

Direct Relationship – between two variables, showing the same effect (both increase/decrease)

Inverse Relationship – between two variables, showing opposite effect

  1. Graph Relationships

Independent Variable – changed in an experiment to test the effects on the dependent variable

Dependant Variable – tested and measured in an experiment based on independent variable

  1. Variable Dependancy

Controlled Variable (control) – a factor in an experiment that remains constant

Control Group – experimental group in which conditions are controlled

pH Scale – measures how acidic or basic a substance is (0-14: 0 acidic, 7 neutral, 14 basic)

  1. The pH Scale

Solute – the part that is dissolved in a solvent to form a solution

Solvent – the liquid that dissolves the solute to form a solution

Concentration – the ratio of the amount of solute to the amount of solvent/solution

  1. Solvent/Solutes (A has a higher concentration than B)

Density – the amount of mass in a given contained volume (mass/volume)

Gravity – downward force that acts on objects (9.8 m/s2 on Earth)

Freezing Point – the temperature at which a substance starts to freeze (0°C for water)

Boiling Point – the temperature at which a substance starts to vaporize (100°C for water)

States of Matter – solid, liquid, gas, and plasma (and all the ways to change between them)

6. Phase Changes by Enthalpy (don’t worry about enthalpy, it’s some advance energy term)

Mitochondria – the powerhouse of the cell (breaks down nutrients and turns them into energy)

Chloroplast – a plant organelle that assists in the process of photosynthesis (turning light into energy)

Natural Selection – in a specific environment, traits that allow organisms to reproduce more effectively become more common and traits that reduce reproductive success become less common








Tags: , , , , , ,