Compass Test

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Since the 1950s more and more American high school students enrolled in colleges throughout the country. With this influx of students came a need to assess a person’s abilities in college level subject material. American College Testing, founded in 1959, developed Compass tests in order to evaluate a student’s knowledge in particular subject areas that are critically important for success in college. The company changed its name in 1996 and it now known as simply ACT. These exams do not test for cognitive reasoning abilities, but rather focus on general knowledge. In most cases test results are utilized to determine what level an incoming student is at with regards to particular subjects.[1]


ACT Compass examinations are designed for first-year college freshmen at either at four-year or two-year colleges. Most often this test would be taken by a student at the very beginning of their college studies.[2] This test is utilized to evaluate an incoming student’s skill level in reading, writing, math, and English as a Second Language. It is not a pass/fail test but rather offers an assessment. Test results are used by colleges to determine course placement for incoming students. At many schools these tests are mandatory. An individual’s score can help colleges determine what classes they should be in and can connect students with academic resources.[3] Colleges vary as to which students must take the exam, please check with your particular school to see if you must sit for the test. While these exams occur very early in a person’s academic career, college administrators often stress that students should take this exam very seriously as low scores will most likely add non-credit development classes to a student’s class schedule. Such an occurrence may affect a student’s plant to graduate in four years.[4] At the same time, if a student scores a high enough score then they may be able to proceed right into higher level classes, thus preventing having to spend any time on remedial coursework.


Upon entering college students should check with their administration to see if they need to take the Compass exam. As the test is administered by colleges and universities a person will likely take it on campus and at a time and date determined by your school. There is no fee to take this test nor is there any application process. It is very important that students check with their college administration to determine if they need to take the test and when. It is important to note that students do have the option of taking the test at a remote site, not at their campus. This is done sometimes if the student or university wishes for the test to take place prior to the student arriving at school. In this case the student can locate a testing center close to their home, pay a proctor fee typically between $20 and $40 dollars, and sit for the test.[5]


Test Environment

The ACT Compass tests are untimed tests that are structured on the computer. Calculators are allowed on the Mathematics test during the Numerical Skills/Prealgebra, Algebra, College Algebra, Geometry, and Trigonometry tests. There are a few that are prohibited however, including ones with build in algebra systems, and any calculators on cell phones or other electronics. After the test is completed, the test-taker will be able to see their score at the testing site.[6]

Test Structure

The ACT Compass has five separate test modules that test candidates in areas most commonly used by schools to evaluate skills. The tests include Reading, Writing Skills, Writing Essay, Mathematics, and English as a Second Language. Each of them are untimed, and, aside from the Essay and ESL tests, are made up of multiple choice questions.[7]

Test Content

The following are the topics covered by each of the four COMPASS sections.

  • The Mathematics section includes questions on: pre-algebra and algebra, geometry, trigonometry, college math, matrix algebra, and discrete math.
Sample Mathematics Questions:
  1. Which of the following is equivalent to the expression 3x + 5y - (2y - 7x)?
    A. -4x + 3y
    B. -4x - 7y
    C. 4x + 3y
    D. 10x - 3y
    E. 10x + 3y
  2. What is the next term in the geometric sequence 2, -4, 8, -16?
    A. 8
    B. -8
    C. 32
    D. -32
    E. 24
  3. The reciprocal of the cosine is called the
    A. sine
    B. secant
    C. cosecant
    D. tangent
    E. cotangent
  • The Reading section includes questions on: critical thinking skills, skimming, and paragraph focus.
Sample Reading Questions:
Numbers 1 and 2 pertain to the following passage:
Tomato plants should be started in window boxes or greenhouses in late March so that they will be ready for the garden after the last frost. Use a soil of equal parts of sand, peat moss and manure, and plant the seeds about a quarter of an inch deep. After covering, water them through a cloth to protect the soil and cover the box with a pane of glass. Keep the box in a warm place for a few days, then place it in a sunny window.
  1. According to the passage, why is late March the best time to germinate tomato seeds?
    A. The last frost has already passed by this time.
    B. It is warm enough by then to germinate them in window boxes.
    C. By the time the last frost passes, they will be ready to transplant outdoors.
    D. The seeds might not be fertile if one were to wait longer.
    E. They need to be exposed to a frost in order to germinate.
  2. What does the passage imply as the reason that the seeds are not planted outdoors immediately?
    A. A late freeze might kill the seedlings.
    B. The soil outdoors is too heavy for new seedlings.
    C. A heavy rain might wash away the seedlings.
    D. New seedlings need to be close to one another and then be moved apart later.
    E. The wind might blow the new seedlings down or uproot them
  • The Writing Skills section includes questions on: punctuation.
Sample Writing Skills Questions:
Numbers 1 and 2 pertain to the following passage:
(1)Spanish Town is the most old neighborhood in Baton Rouge. (2)It was founded in 1805, two years after the Louisiana Purchase.
  1. A. Spanish Town is the most old neighborhood
    B. Spanish Town is the most oldest neighborhood
    C. Spanish Town is the older neighborhood
    D. Spanish Town is the oldest neighborhood
    E. Spanish Town is the old neighborhood
  2. A. It was founded in 1805,
    B. Founded in 1805,
    C. It were founded in 1805,
    D. They founded it in 1805
    E. It was found in 1805


Unlike many other tests there is no set score for passing or failing the Compass test. In fact, test-takers cannot pass or fail. Immediately following this computer-based exam students will receive a score report. This will contain scores for each subject area tested and the amount of time it took per test. Individual states and universities set their own scores that determine which, if any, courses a student needs to take as a result of their test score.[8] Located just beneath the score and time will be an area noted as “General Recommendations.” In this section it will state what classes a student may need. If a student earns a high enough score to be considered adequate in a subject area then it will read “class not required.” In all instances students will discuss their test results with an academic advisor.[9]

Answers to Sample Questions

Mathematics 1:E; 2:C; 3:B; Reading 1:C; 2:A; Writing Skills 1:D; 2:A;

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