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In Support of College Admissions Tests

The following is reprinted with permission from EdSource. Commentary from the Horace Mann Research Chair at ACT, Wayne Camara, was originally posted on July 10.

College admissions tests provide meaningful comparisons and independent evaluation

No single test serves all purposes and goals of accountability equally well.

While some policymakers prefer customized state tests, like Smarter Balanced, that are longer and more likely to include state standards, it is hard to dispute that the ACT, which is taken by high school juniors and seniors and used by many colleges as part of their admissions process, offers several advantages beneficial to students.

In 2018, 26 states administered a college admissions test to all public-school juniors, with about half of those states proposing to use those scores as the academic achievement indicator under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Those states using standardized tests like the ACT for accountability have found they can decrease testing time by about 50 percent or more and eliminate the need for double-testing. Also, they are able to compare the performance of students in their high school with students nationally, which isn’t possible with customized state tests.

Students are arguably more motivated to do their best when taking college admissions tests because the results have personal benefits. Research has also shown increases in college applications and enrollment in states using admission tests, particularly among underrepresented groups.

ESSA asserts that state standards should be aligned to credit-bearing coursework in higher education and scores should support claims that determine student readiness for success in college. ACT test content is based on results from thousands of educators across high schools and colleges that indicate the skills required to succeed in college. ACT College readiness benchmarks are based on the test scores of students who enroll in college and reflect the performance required to obtain a grade of B or higher in actual college courses. Hundreds of studies have demonstrated that admission test scores are related to college success for all groups. If you’re interested in predicting academic success in college, the ACT is one of the most-researched assessments demonstrating strong validity, score precision and fairness.

Nearly 20 years ago the National Academy of Sciences concluded that admissions tests offered many benefits. Score gaps, for example, reflect actual differences in student achievement in college. “Because … ACT scores generally predict slightly higher college grades for minority students than they actually receive, ‘it is not clear that the answer to minority group representation in higher education lies in improved prediction.’”

Several other myths about college tests bear clarification:

Myth: Admissions tests are “graded on a curve.”
Fact: This is not the case. Each student’s score on the ACT is based solely on his or her own performance on the test, regardless of other students’ scores. ACT does not impose a scoring curve.

: A student’s score on the ACT is not likely to change over time.
Fact: Not so. The ACT test measures the knowledge and skills students have learned in their classes, just as customized state tests are designed to do. As students take more challenging courses and learn more, their scores would improve. On average, students who retest from junior to senior year increase their score by about 1 point on the ACT Composite.

: High school grades are the best predictor of college success.
Fact: Research findings suggest otherwise. Both high school GPA and college admission test scores are highly accurate predictors of success in college. However, the single best predictor of college performance is the combination of grades and test scores together.

It’s true that some may over-rely on test scores and not give adequate attention to other factors which are equally predictive and important in determining college success. No single test is a panacea for truth and virtue and each assessment has strengths and limitations.

However, using a national assessment that has been subject to enormous scrutiny and independent evaluation offers a state both benefits and reassurances.

ACT scores allow parents and policymakers to compare students, schools and states nationally and remove the curtain many state assessments hide behind, which prevents meaningful comparisons and independent evaluation and critique.

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ACT is a mission-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people achieve education and workplace success. Grounded in 60 years of research, ACT is a trusted leader in college and career readiness solutions. Each year, ACT serves millions of students, job seekers, schools, government agencies and employers in the US and around the world with learning resources, assessments, research and credentials designed to help them succeed from elementary school through career.