Who’s Afraid of the ACT?

Who's Afraid of the ACT?

Abbie Craig, Journalist

After taking the ACT for the fourth time, aiming for a specific score, I really started to wonder if my readiness for college, my scholastic career, and all of my abilities can be effectively summed up into one number. If you think about it, a person’s entire future can be affected by their ACT score. At least, that’s how it feels when you’re applying for things like colleges and scholarships. It’s all hanging on this one number.

And what if that one number is biased, incomplete, and inaccurate?

An article posted on fairtest.org, the website of The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, contends that the ACT is biased towards wealthy, white males. “ACT scores are directly related to family income: the richer students’ parents are, the higher are average scores. … According to ACT research, when all factors are equal, such as course work, grades and family income, Whites still outscore all other groups. If the ACT were not biased, Asian Americans, who take more academic courses than any other group, would likely score even higher. Moreover, boys score slightly higher than girls across all races, despite boys’ lower grades in high school and college when matched for identical courses.”

The article also points out that timed multiple choice tests favor males over females because males are more willing to take chances and guess. Because they are ready to take chances, they often get a higher ACT score than females–even though females typically have better grades in college.

Colleges use ACT scores to predict which applicants are more likely to do well at their school. However, at best the test only reflects the academic side of things. We’ve all heard the story of the college freshman who loses their amazing scholarship because they couldn’t maintain their grades in the face of overwhelming freedom. The ACT attempts to measure knowledge in English, math, science, and reading. But it doesn’t reveal your personal habits or level of self-discipline, which I believe are keys to success—especially in college. Where are the questions that say, “Can you get yourself up in the morning with an alarm clock?” and “How do you handle stress?” Where are the questions testing your ability to prioritize a list of projects or find a solution to disagreements without offending someone?

Now you can’t blame colleges for trying to find an easy way to compare thousands of applicants. The ACT is appealing because it’s something concrete. But the very act of trying to reduce a student’s entire academic experience to one number is flawed. William Hiss, the former Dean of Admissions for Bates College said, “The human mind is simply so complex and so multifaceted and fluid, that trying to find a single measurement tool that will be reliable across the enormous populations of American students is simply a trip up a blind alley. I would never say the SATs and ACTs have no predictive value for anybody; they have predictive value for some people. We just don’t find them reliable across populations.”

After looking at all the flaws, let’s consider what the ACT is good at. The ACT is the best indicator for how well you take the ACT. Maybe that’s not what the ACT is meant to do, but it sure does it well. The good news is you can get better at it by taking the test over and over and by taking ACT preparation classes. The bad news is this reinforces the bias favoring wealthier people who can afford to take it multiple times and participate in costly prep classes. So rather than a high ACT score showing that you’re ready for college, it might just show that you’re good at taking tests, specifically the ACT test.

Is the ACT effective at predicting college success? A study done at Akron University comparing ACT scores with college performance says that the ACT is an accurate predictor of college success only 20% of the time. Instead, colleges should focus on high school GPA and extracurricular achievements. William Hiss said, “The evidence of the study clearly shows that high school GPA matters. Four-year, long-term evidence of self-discipline, intellectual curiosity and hard work; that’s what matters the most. After that, I would say evidence that someone has interests that they have brought to a higher level, from a soccer goalie to a debater to a servant in a community to a linguist. We need to see evidence that the student can bring something to a high level of skill.”

So what are you going to do about it? Because after four tries, I’m so done with everything having to do with the ACT.



The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, The ACT: Biased, Inaccurate, and Misused, http://www.fairtest.org/act-biased-inaccurate-and-misused



University of Akron