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Why Do So Many Fee-Waived ACT Registrations Go Unused?

Too many students who use a fee waiver to register for a free ACT test do not test on their scheduled test date. As a nonprofit, mission-driven organization dedicated to expanding college access, this is very concerning to us. We wanted to better understand the issue and explore how we might work with our partners to fix it.

As part of our extensive research on fee waivers, we asked students directly about their experiences. Using those data in combination with other sources, we sought to understand why ACT fee-waived registrations go unused. ACT is committed to the success of students from low-income households and believes that students should be seen and engaged holistically across their learning journey. Successful use of the ACT fee waiver is an important step along the way.

As our previous blog exploring fee waiver use explained, we examined registrations completed using a fee waiver over a five-year period from 2014-15 to 2018-19 (before the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic). More than one in five registrations for the ACT were completed using a fee waiver, but over a quarter of those students registering using a fee waiver did not test as scheduled and over half of those students never tested within a three-year period.

We emailed students who registered using a fee waiver but did not test as scheduled for the October 2019 national test date. Thousands of students responded to tell us why they were unable to sit for the ACT test.

Why did some students say they were unable to test as scheduled?

They needed to be somewhere else. (24%) Some students experienced a family emergency or other unexpected conflict, while others had forgotten about a band performance or other pre-scheduled event.

They didn’t have everything they needed to test. (17%) Some students forgot or weren’t able to upload a picture before the photo registration deadline, while others had an expired ID or were unable to print their admission ticket.

They were sick or injured. (14%) Some students gave examples of injuries such as breaking a bone at an athletic competition the night before, and others cited illness such as waking up suffering from a cold that morning.

They didn’t have transportation. (12%) Students may have had their ride cancel on them or forgotten to arrange transportation with a family member or friend.

They overslept. (7%) Some students forgot to set an alarm, while others slept through it.

They didn’t feel prepared enough to take the test. (7%) Students may have felt that their anxiety level was keeping them from testing, or wished they had taken more time in advance to review the topics being tested.

Taking the ACT was no longer necessary. (4%) Some students had already earned the scores they needed for the college of their choice.

They forgot about the test. (3%) Most of these students simply said they forgot the test date because they had other things on their mind while other students reported that they thought the test was on a different day.

They had the incorrect date or location. (3%) Some students thought they were testing on another day or month, while others went to the wrong testing location and were unable to arrive at their scheduled location in time.

Another 10 percent of students gave some other reason.

Most students (66%) didn’t know until the day of the test that they would not be testing as scheduled, while 33% of students knew a week or more ahead of time.

What can we learn from students’ responses?

It’s important to note that 86 percent of the students who did not test as scheduled said that an ACT score was “extremely” or “very” important to their future goals, and 95 percent said that their fee waiver was “extremely” or “very” important in making it financially possible for them to take the ACT.

We must recognize that students from low-income families are more likely to have compounding difficulties, particularly during the pandemic but also during the earlier years we studied. Students believed taking the ACT was important for their future, but they were still unable to test as planned due to a wide variety of obstacles. Students who could not afford an ACT test without a fee waiver may not have been able to afford a car, or even a rideshare. Many had to work to support themselves and their families and these jobs may have prevented them from studying as much as they would have liked, or kept them up late the night before the test. These students need help addressing each barrier standing between them and a college-reportable ACT score.

While some of the students’ reasons for not testing were not actionable, like illness or injury, others could have been overcome—if, for example, students had been given reminders or other supports from stakeholders including educators, family members, mentors, policymakers, and ACT. Many of the reasons given may have ultimately been avoidable, though some clearly were not.

We are committed to helping all registered students, particularly those using fee waivers, successfully take the ACT test. Simply offering a fee waiver is not enough, and our research identifies additional supports ACT and our partners can put in place to help students succeed. The supports that help students maximize fee waiver usage can be found in our recommendations, which will be highlighted in our next blog post.

This set of in-depth blogs covers our four-part report series on fee waivers. A previous blog summarized new research on fee waivers. Stay tuned for the next blog post, which will summarize recommendations to policymakers and educators for partnering with ACT to increase access to and completion of the ACT test.