Education has always been considered an important factor in gauging a nation’s strength. Thomas Jefferson understood that an uneducated populace was doomed never to be free; and virtually every modern president proclaims “education” a top priority.
Determining how well a citizenry is in fact educated, however, always has been problematic. Standardized testing has long been employed as part of this evaluation.
However, in a rush to simplify the processes whereby colleges and universities judge the potential for success of their schools’ applicants, many educators rely on – and legislators in North Carolina recently mandated reliance on — the use of a standardized test now found to be significantly lacking in predictive capability.
The test in question is the ACT; which has been gaining in popularity among high school students as an alternative to the SAT.
A study released in May by the independent National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), casts serious doubt on the ability of the ACT to predict whether or not high school graduates applying for college will actually succeed in successfully finishing their college career – notwithstanding that such predictability is the primary purpose for such testing. In fact, the ACT’s own publications highlight the test’s purpose as measuring “college readiness.”
The problem – as detailed in the NBER’s report, “Improving College Performance and Retention the Easy Way: Unpacking the ACT Exam” – lies in the fact that only two of the four tests comprising the ACT (English and math) “can effectively predict outcomes in college.” Neither the reading component, nor the science portion of the ACT, was found to have any value in predicting a student’s success in college. The ACT’s science test, for example, largely tests one’s ability to read and interpret graphs and charts; almost entirely ignoring actual science like physics, chemistry and biology.
If college admissions offices simply considered the scores received by applicants in each of the four component subjects – math, English, reading and science – the process would be far more likely to reveal whether those students were prepared for, and likely to succeed in, their post-secondary education experience.
However, for some reason, the vast majority of colleges that use the ACT consider only a “composite score in their admissions process.” This means that the students’ overall unpreparedness is effectively masked.
The result of this problem, as noted by the NBER, is that students taking the ACT may be matched to schools either too difficult or too easy for their capabilities. This in turn exacerbates the alarmingly high dropout rate we see in American colleges and universities. As found by the NBER researchers, more than one third of students who began post-secondary education, had not received a degree or were no longer enrolled in any institution of higher learning after six years.
Like most states, Georgia includes as an “important” component of its criteria for admission to the University system, an applicant’s standardized test scores; but does not mandate specifically either the SAT or the ACT. (Unlike the ACT, the SAT provides colleges with individual scores from its three component tests, reading, mathematics and writing.) Georgia does require a minimum score on the SAT in order for students to receive a full HOPE scholarship.
Thanks to a law recently enacted in North Carolina, on the other hand, all high school juniors in the Tar Heel State, will be forced to take the ACT. Unfortunately, this law was passed shortly before the NBER study revealed the serious shortcomings in the ACT.
Hopefully, Georgia or any other states considering a move similar to North Carolina’s will require legislators and governors to first read the NBER study. This homework hopefully will short-circuit any such legislative move, and also force colleges and universities to reevaluate the manner in which the ACT is used in the first place.
by Bob Barr — The Barr code