What’s New in ACT WorkKeys

Published on Thursday, January 18th, 2018 by

What’s in the New ACT WorkKeys Test?

For over a year, ACT has hinted at new WorkKeys tests. We’ve known about changes to names, item counts, and time limits, but ACT has finally released a practice test in the new format, and I analyzed the new items last week. The changes can be summarized in three bullet points:

  • New titles, item counts, and time limits
  • Major shift to numeracy in Locating Information (now Graphic Literacy)
  • Cosmetic changes to Applied Mathematics and Reading for Information (now Workplace Documents)

General Changes to the ACT WorkKeys Test

In general, WorkKeys test items have been updated to reflect modern technology and jobs. You will find no reference to typewriters, but a pager figured prominently in a few questions (arguably in a modern context)!

Item counts, time limits, and names are slightly tweaked, as is test formatting. The only test section that appears to have experienced a significant content shift is the old Locating Information test, under the new moniker Graphic Literacy. This test section seems to have a heavier emphasis on numeracy than the previous assessment. Full details are given below along with an important analysis disclaimer.

WorkKeys Test Name Changes


The Applied Mathematics test has been renamed ACT WorkKeys Applied Math. Locating Information is now ACT WorkKeys Graphic Literacy. Reading for Information is now called ACT WorkKeys Workplace Documents.

WorkKeys Item Count Changes

The Applied Math test has 34 items, one more than its previous version. Each Workplace Documents test has 35 items, two more than the old Reading for Information assessment. Graphic Literacy has the same number of items as the Locating Information test: 38.

WorkKeys Time Limit Changes

In the previous version of the WorkKeys tests, students taking the assessments online were given ten extra minutes to answer the questions (55 minutes instead of 45 minutes). This is no longer the case with the new assessments. Students get 55 minutes per test whether they are taking it online or with pencil and paper.

Summary of Structural Changes to ACT WorkKeys

This table summarizes all of the structural changes to the assessment.table4a


Locating Information vs. ACT WorkKeys Graphic Literacy Test

The Graphic Literacy component of the WorkKeys test has apparently undergone a dramatic shift (see the qualifying disclaimer at the end of this article). Four major changes combined can be characterized as an increased emphasis on numeracy and deeper reasoning:

  • More line and bar graphs
  • Four new question types
  • Less passages, but deeper questions
  • Level 7 questions

We’ll take up each change in turn.

More Line and Bar Graphs

In the newly released test, 47% of questions related to a line or bar graph. In the previously released test, only 13% of questions related to a line or bar graph. Whereas the bulk of a student’s score in the Locating Information test was derived from the ability to decode cryptic figures and diagrams, now a significant portion of the Graphic Literacy test focuses on comprehending series of numerical data plotted over time.

Four New Question Types

Several new types of questions make their debut in the Graphic Literacy test. Three are designed to assess skills related specifically to line and bar graphs, while the fourth isolates a student’s ability to deal with partial information in a figure or diagram. The new question types are as follows (our labels, not ACT’s):

  • Create Figures
  • Rate of Change
  • Extrapolation and Interpolation
  • Decode

We have produced a “mini-test” that closely emulates these new question types. Click to download the mini-test as well as the answer explanations.

Create Figures

In the newly released WorkKeys test, 8% of the items require students to create figures. In this question type, students are asked to convert a table or graph into a different graph. Students are provided four viable options, and they must choose the graph that accurately represents the data selected by the question. Those who are familiar with this question type on the ACT Science test will feel right at home. However, there is an added wrinkle that isn’t present in ACT Science: suitability of graph type. Specifically, in one question on the released test, students must select a line graph instead of a bar graph because line graphs better represent trends over time. Questions 1 and 3 in our mini-test are examples of this question type.

Rate of Change

One of the items on the released practice test asks students to identify the rate of change (slope) on a line graph over a specified domain. No formula is needed to arrive at the answer, but students must understand the general concept of rise over run to respond correctly. Question 9 in our mini-test emulates this question type.

Extrapolation and Interpolation

8% of the newly released items on the Graphic Literacy test ask students to extrapolate or interpolate data. By this we mean that they must either mentally extend a graph beyond the limits of its x-axis and/or y-axis (extrapolation), or that they must create a point or line on a graph that is between two given points or lines (interpolation). The process students must use to answer these questions is very similar to the process they must go through to answer questions in the Interpolation and Extrapolation strand on the ACT Science test. Questions 10 and 11 in our mini-test emulate this question type.


In a decoding question, students are given partial information, and they must use logic to fill the gaps. 8% of the questions on the newly released Graphic Literacy test were of this type. The process of elimination is a must for decoding questions, and students must be comfortable with ambiguity to arrive at the “least terrible” answer. Questions 6–8 in our mini-test emulate the varying levels of difficulty possible with this question type.

Other Item Changes

While previously released test items have called on students to describe trends in line graphs, the newly released Graphic Literacy test explicitly asks students to describe a proportional relationship (a simplified version of the ACT Science Variables & Mathematical Relationships strand). I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a new item type, but it’s worth calling to your attention. We added question 12 as a bonus item to our mini-test to give you an example of this type of question. (Real Graphic Literacy tests only have three items per figure or passage, but when I added this example it gave the last passage four.)

Less Passages, But Deeper Questions

The new Graphic Literacy test features a dramatic reduction in the number of passages/figures that students must decipher. For the purposes of our analysis, we are considering a passage to be a set of one or more figures (accompanied by text) referenced by one or more test items.

In the released test for the previous version of the WorkKeys test, students had to absorb 32 different passages. Most passages only had one question that related to it.

In the newly released test, there are only 17 passages. This is nearly a 50% reduction. Most passages have at least two questions that reference them, and many have three.

Of all the changes described herein, this last has the greatest impact on the test-taking experience for the student. Students will feel less frantic taking this new Graphic Literacy assessment. Whereas before students had less than two minutes per passage (and less than 90 seconds per passage when taking the pencil-and-paper version of the test), they are now granted more than three minutes per passage. A much greater proportion of their time will be spent solving questions rather than digesting figures and passages. Time management, while always a factor, becomes less important.

Level 7 Questions

The Locating Information test only went up to Level 6, while the old Applied Mathematics and Reading for Information assessments went up to Level 7. This is remedied in the new Graphic Literacy test, and the final questions in the assessment feature questions of a new, higher level of rigor. ACT describes Level 7 Graphic Literacy items in this manner (source):

“Level 7 items use extremely complex, dense graphics (often multiple graphics) and require examinees to demonstrate the following skills:

  • Interpret trends/patterns/relationships
  • Make a reasonable inference or decision based on one graphic after finding information in another graphic
  • Justify a decision using evidence found in a graphic
  • Identify the graphic that accurately represents the data
  • Justify an inference or decision based on information
  • Identify and justify the most effective graphic given a defined purpose”

Other Changes

As mentioned above, the Locating Information test has been given a new name—Graphic Literacy—and a new time limit—55 minutes for both pencil-and-paper and online administrations. Its item count remains the same, although the number of passages has been drastically reduced.

Applied Mathematics vs. ACT WorkKeys Applied Math

Our analysis of the newly released ACT WorkKeys Applied Math test revealed no significant content shifts from the old Applied Mathematics test. The items are updated to reflect modern technology and careers. The difficulty progression is on par with the old test. The new test sports 34 items rather than 33. As mentioned earlier, the new test runs 55 minutes regardless of whether it is taken with pencil and paper or online.

The formula sheet that ACT provides with the assessment has undergone two modifications: the kilometers-to-miles conversion has been removed and the temperature formulas on the math sheet have been simplified to no longer include decimal alternatives.

Among the most difficult questions that appear on the Applied Mathematics assessment are new looks on familiar skills. For example, students might benefit from becoming familiar with the manufacturing concepts of tolerance or clearance and the application of the plus or minus (±) symbol.

Reading for Information vs. ACT WorkKeys Workplace Documents

The new Workplace Documents assessment is very similar to the old Reading for Information test. The content has been modernized to today’s technology and careers, and the number of items has been increased to 35. The new test runs 55 minutes in both pencil-and-paper and online formats.

Unlike the Graphic Literacy test, which saw a significant decrease in the number of distinct passages, the newly released Workplace Documents assessment used the same number of passages as the previously released Reading for Information test (15).

The most noticeable change is cosmetic: the previous version of the assessment used workplace document layouts that emulated memos, letterhead, etc., all in different fonts and frequently with corporate logos. The new version uses only text for each passage, all with the same font and font size.

Effect on MasteryPrep’s ACT WorkKeys Boot Camp

We have updated our ACT WorkKeys Boot Camp to reflect the changes we have identified in the assessments. Our program is now a full match with what students will experience on the new test. The largest changes are in the Graphic Literacy section of the boot camp, where students will experience a mini-test that introduces them to the assessment’s new focus on numeracy and depth of reasoning and will learn strategies for dealing with the new question types.

Effect on MasteryPrep’s WorkKeys Curriculum

MasteryPrep’s instructors are receiving training on the new tests as well as supplemental curricular content for the spring semester. Our MasteryKeys curriculum will be updated for the 2018-19 school year to include lessons on the new content as described in this document.

Disclaimer on Analysis

It deserves mention that, unlike the ACT where we can analyze dozens (and dozens!) of released assessments, our bank of exemplar question items for the WorkKeys test has always been scant . While we do everything we can to piece together the full story of any assessment, having a small sample size of exemplar items makes it possible for an assessment to vary widely (compared to our expectations) from administration to administration.

As such, what I describe in this article are definite changes in our understanding of the WorkKeys tests, but it is possible that these tests had already changed to this reality before ACT introduced the name changes for the new WorkKeys assessment portfolio. We are only able to work with the snapshots provided by released items, assessments, and literature, and these snapshots do not provide the full picture. While we have good reason to believe that these changes were ushered in with the new assessment, there is no way to be certain (short of someone from ACT with access to historic tests confirming it for us).

By the same token, the percentages I mention in the Graphic Literacy section of this article only refer to the frequency of skill types in the released test and do not guarantee that the same frequency will occur in subsequently administered assessments. As a matter of fact, probably the only sure thing is that the WorkKeys test your students take next will be somewhat different in skill frequency than the test released by ACT. It may happen that a test variant does not include one or more of the new item types I describe, and it may also be the case that a test variant introduces another new item type beyond the ones I cover here.

Do the new assessments represent new WorkKeys tests? Technically, no, not even with Graphic Literacy, the assessment that experienced the greatest change. Most of the new item types are contemplated in ACT’s previous literature and technical manuals; it is just that items that assess these skills have not appeared “in the wild,” in released assessments or in ACT’s WorkKeys curriculum (Keytrain). Nothing in the newly released assessments varies widely from ACT’s pre-existing technical specifications for WorkKeys. A Level 4 score from five years ago means something very similar to a Level 4 score for today, even if the Graphic Literacy assessment has a tighter focus on numeracy. What is appropriate for test preparation changes significantly, but from a holistic vantage I would describe the Graphic Literacy test as another face to the same coin, rather than a new coin entirely. To extend the metaphor, Workplace Documents and Applied Math add a layer of polish, but are essentially the same faces to the same coins.

In summary, please take this analysis with at least one grain of salt. As more information becomes available, and as ACT releases more items, we will continue our research and be able to work with more certainty in our conclusions.