Thursday, June 25, 2015

The ACT Is Tattling

Like all corporations in the test manufacturing industry, the ACT is working hard to retain and grow market share. With that in mind, the folks at ACT have been announcing upcoming changes in the test. Some of the changes are merely dumb, while at least one is actually creepy.

Writing? Really? Sigh.

I would call the search for a workable standardized writing test the holy grail of testing, but by comparison the search for the holy grail (whether we're talking Chretien de Troyes or Monty Python) is relatively sensible, realistic, and possibly successful compared to the search for a means of mass-assessing high level writing. I've discussed this foolishness here and here and here and here and here and you get the idea. Here's what the ACT folk say they have in mind:

In addition, ACT plans to enhance the scoring and approach of the optional ACT Writing Test, offering more insights to help students become college and career ready. Students’ essays will be evaluated on four domains of writing competency:  ideas and analysis, development and support, organization, and language use. The test will measure students’ ability to evaluate multiple perspectives on a complex issue and generate their own analysis based on reasoning, knowledge and experience. This will allow students to more fully demonstrate their analytical writing ability.

No, the ACT writing test will not measure any of these things. It will measure the students' ability to crank out a formulaic piece of writing-ish work on short notice.

We're Here To Help

Much of the verbage of the ACT announcement follows the pattern of the first sentence above-- the part where they write "to help students become college and career ready." The ACT copy keeps talking like the ACT is an integral part of the education process, as if students and teachers and administrators are carefully examining ACT results in order to fine tune educational choices going forward.

"Wow, according to my ACT results, I am a little soft on my paragraph-building skills, particularly when it comes to transitions and coordinating of complex ideas. I had better ask my English teacher to focus on these skills so I'm better prepared for college," said no high school student ever.

Maybe the ACT folks just read their own marketing too often. Maybe I just haven't had enough contact with the Finer School Districts where faculty and students have long sessions plumbing the depths of ACT results over tiny sandwiches and grey poupon. But in the world I'm familiar with, students recognize SAT and ACT testing as a pointless activity required for college admissions, take the test, check the resulting score and move on with life.

I realize that ACT is mostly just marketing here, but there's also a kind of poignant sadness to it-- it's like the guy who gives you your driving test thinking that he's now an integral part of your family.

But the new ACT will shake and bake and chop and dice and even julienne data in all sort of new indexes and scores to provide you with data deep-fried and half-baked so that you can better integrate the information into your educational plan. Also, Common Core Standards blah blah blah.

The Creepy Part- Big Brother Is Tattling on You

Here's the reporting form that students will get. Pretty basic same old same old.

Now check out the reporting form that a college will get. Check out the upper right hand corner. Now check it out again to make sure you see what you really see.

That's right-- the ACT is going to tell the college of your choice the chances that you will get a B or better and the chances that you will get a C or better, both by major and by specific course.

For instance, Ann Taylor, according to the ACT, has a 72% chance of doing better that a C in Freshman English, but only a 48% chance of doing better than a B. If she becomes an education major, she has 65% chance of doing better than a B, but in business administration, she'd only have a 61% chance. Because the ACT is prepared to be just that granular.

How can they possibly pretend to know any of this. According to college admissions examiner Nancy Griesemer, the ACT folks say they will consider data provided by participating colleges, the test results and data about the student such as high school GPA. But in a fairly awesome twist, all of the data about the student will be self-reported. So the ACT will factor in whatever GPA the student claims to have in high school. It occurs to me that this may just be some elaborate problem-solving exercise that tests the student's critical and ethical thinking skills.

Of course, the ACT's ethical thinking skills may be a little fuzzy, because I'll now remind you that we found this creative piece of reportage on the college report-- and nowhere else.

So sign up now, kids. Sign yourself up for the ACT and pay for the privilege of having someone use voodoo science to screw with your admission's chances at the colleges of your choice and to do it behind your back. Heck, even the credit report companies are required to show you what they're saying about you-- and you're not giving them your money to do it!

This is a bold move on ACT's part-- after all, it won't take long at all for colleges to notice if the predictions are crap (and it won't take students long to figure out the strategic advantages of giving their own record the Stretch Armstrong treatment). The only up side to all of this is that with David Coleman steering the College Board (SAT, AP, ETC) into the weeds and now encouraging the ACT to head there as well, this may open up further discussion of simply dumping these fear-inducing, anxiety-creating, money-wasting tests from the entire college admissions process.


  1. That really is creepy, and stupid with the self-reported GPA. At the very least, if they're going to do all this speculation on mainly the basis of one test, why not also tell the student?

  2. Let's hope the test-optional movement in college admissions keeps growing. If it does, then the SAT and ACT will not matter.

  3. "The ACT copy keeps talking like the ACT is an integral part of the education process..."

    Well, in Florida it can be. A friend teaches in West Palm Beach to juniors and seniors who have yet to "meet a reading standard" i.e. pass a test. One way to meet the standard is by getting a given score on the ACT. Way to make yourself relevant.

  4. I think standardized tests can provide a valuable alternative way for students to demonstrate their academic abilities. This is especially important for male students as they do consistently better on standardized tests than would be predicted by their grades.