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Testing Supports for English Learners Taking the ACT: Improving Access and Performance


By Joann Moore, Senior Research Scientist

In September 2017, ACT began offering testing supports (accommodations) to English learners (ELs) in the U.S. taking the ACT®, including:

    · extended time, not to exceed time and a half;

    · approved word-to-word bilingual dictionary (no definitions);

    · test directions in the native language (currently 18 languages); and

    · testing in a familiar environment/small group.

The supports are intended to improve access and equity for ELs whose lack of English proficiency might interfere with their ability to demonstrate their knowledge and skills as assessed by the ACT. The supports were selected based on a review of research indicating that they can provide a benefit to ELs and are unlikely to change the construct being measured (for example, if a reading test was read aloud to examinees, it would no longer be measuring reading but would instead be measuring listening skills). The supports were also reviewed by internal content experts at ACT as well as a Blue-Ribbon Panel of external researchers and experts in assessing English learners, educational measurement, state and federal policy, higher education, and civil rights.

Students are able to indicate the need for supports when they register to take the ACT. School officials provide documentation to ACT and supports are approved for eligible students. Students are eligible if they are not proficient in English and are enrolled in school in the U.S., U.S. territories, or Puerto Rico. Additional information for educators about how to request the supports and other resources for educators can be found in the links below.

What We Have Learned So Far
In order to better understand the effects of these supports, we’ve produced two recent research papers providing our first look into the performance of ELs taking the ACT with testing supports. English Learners who Take the ACT with Testing Supports: An Examination of Performance, Demographics, and Contextual Factors (Moore, 2021) examines performance, demographics, and high school experiences of ELs taking the ACT with and without testing supports. Score Gains and Validity Evidence for English Learners Testing with Supports on the ACT (Moore, Li, & Lu, 2021) examines score gains, relationships with high school grades, and the validity and reliability of scores for ELs taking the ACT with and without supports.

ELs are a vastly diverse group of students, differing with respect to their native language, culture, educational experiences (both in English and in their native language), levels of proficiency in English and in their native language, age or grade level in which they entered the U.S., and many other factors. ELs are also continuously improving their English skills, and as they become proficient, they move out of the EL category. New ELs are also continuously being identified and assigned EL status as they enter U.S. schools. All of these factors make ELs a challenging population to study. It is impossible to make general statements that apply to all ELs. The findings from our recent studies show general trends across the population of ELs who take the ACT with or without testing supports as compared to their English-proficient peers who take the ACT without supports.

Findings from these recent studies have highlighted some wins as well as some challenges in educating and assessing ELs. In terms of wins, we found that the testing supports did indeed have a benefit for students using them. Score gains were higher for ELs who first tested without supports and retested with supports than for ELs testing twice without supports and non-ELs testing twice without supports, particularly in reading. The figure below shows score gains by subject area and group. We also found that the ACT scores of ELs who retested with supports were more closely aligned to their high school GPA (i.e., higher correlations), suggesting that offering supports to these students result in scores that more accurately reflect their learning.

Figure 1. ACT Score Gains by Retest Group 

In terms of challenges, we found that ELs tended to score below non-ELs on the ACT and reported lower high school GPAs than non-ELs. ELs took fewer core academic courses (defined as four years of English and three years each of math, social studies, and science) and fewer honors or AP courses. ELs were more likely to be non-White, from a low-income family, and/or a first-generation college student. We also found that the number of ELs testing with supports was lower than anticipated, suggesting a potential awareness gap or language barrier. This finding points to the need to continue to ensure that ELs know that the supports are available and that they and their families have the resources they need to be able to request the supports.

Despite the challenges and inequities ELs face, ELs reported wanting to attend college at rates comparable to their English-proficient peers. This finding underscores the importance of ensuring that ELs have opportunities to access rigorous academic content as they learn English and strive towards college and career readiness.


  • ELs face unique challenges in attaining college and career readiness while also working toward English proficiency. Educators and policymakers should provide resources to ensure that these students have the same college and career opportunities as their non-EL peers. These resources might include family outreach, home-language advising, personalized tutoring, additional college advising, connection with dedicated nonprofits or creation of specialized state and district offices that specifically serve English Learners, and other resources for addressing ELs’ individual needs.
  • While ELs may face additional challenges, educators must maintain high expectations and ensure that ELs have equal access to rigorous academic content and instruction (with additional supports as appropriate).
  • Counselors, teachers, and community organizations should work together to ensure that ELs and their families are aware of available supports and can request and access appropriate supports as well as other available resources.
  • Policies, resources, and organizations serving ELs vary from state to state, and educators, students, and parents benefit from having access to relevant information. ¡ColorĂ­n Colorado! is a national organization dedicated to providing parents and educators of ELs with a plethora of information and resources, including state-specific information as well as resources for parents in multiple languages.
  • The U.S. Department of Education as well as states, districts, and schools should conduct additional research and analyses to better understand and then address performance gaps for all students, particularly those learning English.

EL Research Partnership Opportunity 

ACT is currently recruiting colleges to submit first-year academic performance data to study relationships between ACT scores and college grades and provide evidence that the testing supports result in scores that can accurately predict ELs’ success in first-year college courses. Additional information about how to participate in this study can be found here:  


Translated Test Instructions: 

List of Approved Word-to-Word Dictionaries: 

Infographic in English, Spanish, Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese, and Arabic: 

Home Page for Research Studies of English Learners Taking the ACT: