ACT Nation?

In any discussion of assessment, both the SAT and the ACT bring with them the weight of their reputation, a reputation that the tests are unbiased, test for college readiness, and are good predictors of future achievement and reflect a student’s current knowledge.  None of these assumptions are true.  (For more information, please visit the group FairTest, who are constantly challenging the myths around these types of assessments.).

In many of the conversations I have with principals and teachers  about their ACT scores, I find that there are numerous additional misconceptions about the nature of these tests that are not often illuminated.

1. The ACT results are given as SCALED scores.  That is because the ACT is a norm-referenced test.  It compares an individual student’s performance against those of their peers.  So how does this comparison give any indication of mastery of a concept?  It doesn’t.  That’s what criterion referenced tests are for.  But we gave those up because of the powerful arguments made by the ACT.

2.  The ACT also assesses more than meets the eye.  In the testing world, we refer to this as the implicit and explicit skills that are assessed by the test.  For example, on the ACT, we are explicitly testing a student’s reading comprehension: his or her ability to find the main idea, understand difficult words using context clues, recognize an author’s bias.  Yet there are numerous implicit skills tested as well: the student’s ability to deal with boring texts, the student’s anxiety level in the face of a serious time pressure (40 questions in 35 minutes = 4 passages, 10 questions each, with less than a minute per question, which does not even factor the actual reading of the passages), his or her bubbling ability (it seems easy enough, but have you ever skipped a question and then bubbled in the wrong question? Now add the fact that you have no time for that type of error and you have a BIG problem).  The list can go on and on.  Am I really testing reading ability? Or am I testing for something else?  I am not convinced that the ACT tests what we are after.

This is what makes the ACT and SAT so easy to coach.  It is no accident that Kaplan and the Princeton Review can offer score improvement guarantees: it’s easy to improve a kid’s score.  Have them practice those implicit testing skills over and over again.  Have them take multiple practice tests.  Teach them Process of Elimination. They improve. Every time.  So when Student A improves his score, he is not reading at a more proficient level, he has merely become proficient at reading a standardized reading test. And I am not convinced that reading a standardized reading test is a College or Career Readiness skill.  Doing well on a test does not mean that the student is a proficient reader. Additionally, a low score tells us only that the student had a low score, but not why.  A student with a low score can not be said to be lacking reading proficiency–he or she is lacking proficiency in reading for the test.

Why all this discussion of standardized testing? Because the final version of the Common Core standards were released.  If you haven’t been following this movement, I suggest you go back and read the earlier versions. Upon reading the first draft, I immediately noticed that the standards tracked nicely with the current ACT assessment.  I went directly to the list of authors to discover that fully half of the ELA team were actually ACT employees.  What we have in these standards is a corporation invested in its own self-interest, developing standards that emphasize the very items tested in its premier product.  ACT does not have to change its assessment in any way in order for it to be used as a primary assessment for these standards.  I think it is no accident that ACT has, in the past year since the initiative began, expanded its offerings to include assessments for younger and younger children.

There is a lot more I want to say about what I don’t like in these standards.  I am not sold on the premise of the argument either, thanks to the scholarship of Yong Zhao, for example.   That being said, the biggest concern I have is the overemphasis and over-reliance on the ACT–a test that has innumerable problems. To think that we are going to align the education of our entire nation to this assessment–it is just so counter-productive.  I want to educate our children to be thinkers, creators; educate them to be engineers and scientists capable of dealing with the increasingly intractable problems of health care and climate change.  I do not want a nation of students adept at answering boring questions on boring assessments.  And I certainly don’t buy the argument that the ACT shows anything beyond an ability to do well on the ACT.  Throwing away valuable resources chasing test scores, particularly on this test!, it is truly a mistake.

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