Recall for a moment, if you will, a trope of the cheesy romantic comedy.

Have I…uh…seen you here before?

Replace the sheepish questioner with this spring’s ACT test takers and swap the eye-rolling recipient with the April ACT, and you’ve got yourself a standardized test prep smash hit. By the way, the answer is “yes.” I’ll take two tickets, please.

After the April 2018 ACT, rumors began circulating on discussion boards frequented by anxiety-ridden students: the ACT test form administered on April 14th was the same as the one given not quite two years ago in September 2016. Because the ACT releases only its April, June, and December exams, there will be no way to confirm that this April’s test, which will be released in about a month, was a carbon copy of the September 2016 form. Despite the lack of hard evidence, the claims were corroborated by several students who happened to have sat for the ACT in September 2016 and this April. They reported recognizing certain elements of the April exam, especially passages from the Reading section. Though most of these students didn’t seem to remember exact questions and answers, one summarized what we all could have guessed: the first run with the test form left them feeling much more prepared.

But before we take our pitchforks and torches in hand and lead the march to ACT headquarters, we should take a few moments to reflect, and to ask ourselves: is this surprising? Not really.

Both the ACT and SAT are notorious for reusing questions––and in some cases, entire tests––from previous administrations of their exams. In light of what the testing agencies tell us, this is nothing new or extraordinary. These organizations cite the high cost of developing a single test form (in the case of the SAT, reported to be near $1 million), along with the need to ensure consistency of question difficulty and types of skills tested across exams. Recycled test material, therefore, is an inevitability. And while it may seem brazen to repurpose an entire test in identical form, we know it’s been done before on the international stage, where students who sit for the SAT or ACT outside the U.S. often see forms administered stateside just months prior.

From a cost-benefit stance, sending the same test around for another spin can actually be a pretty safe move. First, the vast majority of students sit for the ACT exclusively in their junior and senior years: this means that a span of two school years between even identical tests is unlikely to backfire, as it’s likely that only a vanishingly small percentage of students would sit for both exams. Second, remember that September 2016’s ACT was not released––after the day on which they took the test, students would have no way of preserving exact questions for posterity, short of some very illegal and unethical hijinks. While it is true that students share a cacophony of test-day experiences and answers after the exam, the commentary hinges on unreliable memories unlikely to be sought and effectively used by students two years down the road. The calculation is clear: though it may offend our sensibilities, recycled test material is here to stay.

The point here is not to evoke umbrage, but rather to reiterate what we already knew: taking previously administered exams is a great way to prepare for the ACT or SAT. The greater the number of old exams students see and work through, the more likely they are to recognize similar questions and concepts tested. Take, for example, question 24 on the June 2017 ACT math section, below. Then, look to the right at number 27 from the exam six months later in December.

Dec24Jun27

 

Suspiciously similar, aren’t they? Now, take a look at the similarity between English concepts in the same two exams, respectively.

Jun54

 

Dec49

While the passages are different, the answer choices are structured exactly the same way: redundant choices are present in everything except choices D and J. Once students learn to recognize this type of question, they won’t be able to miss it.

So take this lesson to the bank: get access to old exams, and take lots of them before sitting for the real ACT. In the fittingly redundant words of Yogi Berra, test day will be déjà vu all over again.