The ACT is a flawed test

Ken Blackwell Former Ohio Secretary of State
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I learned in science class that no two snowflakes are exactly the same — their uniqueness is owed to the fact that tiny droplets in clouds cool and freeze at different rates. Determining whether a student understands this or any other level of science is where tests come into play, and for students considering college, the standardized admissions test has an important role.

It can be difficult for college admissions officers to gauge what a student actually knows. It can be even harder to determine whether he has the knowledge and reasoning skills he needs to succeed in a university environment. Standardized tests, while only one of many criteria that college admissions officers consider, level the playing field among students from diverse backgrounds and guard against grade inflation. But what if the tests don’t serve that purpose — or worse, skew the perception of a student’s ability?

Those are among the questions raised in a study of the ACT admissions test by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). The NBER study, published in May, concluded that the science portion of the ACT is ill-suited to determining whether high school graduates will succeed in finishing their college careers. In fact, the NBER researchers concluded that the science and reading portions of the ACT “provide essentially no predictive power regarding college outcomes.”

According to the NBER report, the main problem with the ACT is how it presents students’ test scores to admissions officers. The test covers four subject areas — English, mathematics, science and reading — but rather than reporting the individual scores from each of the four subject areas, the test combines all four scores into a single composite score. So a student who answers all of the ACT science questions right but flunks the math section may well be judged the same as a student who does moderately well in all four subject areas. By comparison, the SAT, another popular college admissions test, provides three separate scores for that exam’s language, mathematics and writing sections.

The ACT’s science section is itself flawed. It’s supposed to assess a student’s understanding of biology, chemistry, physics and the Earth sciences, including astronomy, geology and meteorology — in 40 questions.

In fact, the ACT science section doesn’t test much science at all. It functions more as a comprehension test, featuring lengthy, science-based reading passages followed by multiple-choice questions. A few questions require actual knowledge of science beyond what is already laid out in the test. But if you can read and understand what is right in front of you, you can score pretty well. Small wonder researchers found the science section of the ACT has “essentially no predictive power” in measuring a student’s prospects for success on a university campus.

The ACT science section is also something of a contradiction. While ACT Inc., the company behind the ACT, claims that its test measures what a student has learned, the company’s website says, “The intent [of the science test] is to present students with a situation to engage their reasoning skills, rather than to invite their recall of a classroom activity.” What, then, is the ACT: a knowledge test or a reasoning test?

Facts matter and ACT Inc. could be more forthright in how it portrays its test. If the ACT is a knowledge test, then it should test actual knowledge, whether it’s science or any other subject.

Ken Blackwell is chairman of Pass the Balanced Budget and the best-selling author of Resurgent: How Constitutional Conservatism Can Save America, coauthored with Ken Klukowski and published by Simon and Schuster.