The ACT is Still Useful

Don't drop it.

Editor’s note: This article is excerpted from “The ACT Discriminates,” published in Quillette on 16 July 2022.

Standardized tests have been attacked for being biased against some groups of students. Is that true? Should we stop using them?

Exams like the American College Test (ACT) are supposed to assess how much information students learned in high school and, by implication, their preparedness for college. However, they’ve been criticized as being biased against female, minority, and low-income students.

As a biological psychologist, I’ve taught mostly in the fields of neuroscience, brain function, learning theory, cognition, and the like. But I also spent 12 years teaching high-school science, math, and ACT prep courses for a large, nonprofit tutoring center that drew students from about a dozen varied high schools.

To stay abreast of changes to the ACT, and to understand it from my students’ perspectives, I took all of the ACTs archived at the center and new versions as they were released. I know the test pretty well.

Last year, female students had a higher average composite score than males.In 2021, approximately 1.3 million students took the ACT. The test has four sections, English, math, reading, science, and an optional writing test. The number of correct answers for each of the four main sections is converted to a scaled score from 1 to 36. The composite score is the average of the four scaled scores.

Last year, female students had a higher average composite score (20.6) than males (20.3) and outscored males in both English and reading. They virtually tied males in science (20.4 to 20.6), and differed by less than a point in math.

Among those who took the most rigorous series of science courses (general/Earth science, biology, chemistry, and physics), males and females differed by less than one point in their science scores (23.4 vs. 22.5). Females also outscored males in the optional writing test (19.6 vs. 18.1), and a larger percentage of females met the College Readiness Benchmarks for English and reading.

Clearly, the ACT does not discriminate against females.

Students who take the ACT can self-identify by race (not all do). The average composite scores for the five largest categories, followed (in parentheses) by the scores for students who took four or more years of English and three or more years each of math, social studies, and natural sciences, are as follows: Black = 16.3 (17.9), Hispanic/Latino = 18.3 (20.3), White = 21.7 (23.3), Asian = 24.9 (26.7), Two or More Races = 20.6 (22.5), No Response = 19.2 (23.7).

Taking a more rigorous high-school curriculum helped everyone.

These overall scores are often used to claim that the ACT is racially biased. However, if the scores are considered in terms of race and self-reported postsecondary aspirations, a more complex picture emerges.

For instance, Black, American Indian/Alaska Native, Hispanic/Latino, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students who aspire to graduate study or a professional degree had higher composite scores (19.5-22.7) than Asian or White students whose aspirations were to pursue a vocational/technical degree or a two-year college degree (16.9-18.5).

Within all racial categories, scores increased as aspirations increased.Further, within all racial categories, scores increased as aspirations increased from vocational/technical training to graduate study and professional-level degrees. The largest such increase was a remarkable 52 percent among Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander and Asian students.

Hispanic and Black student scores increased 46 and 40 percent, respectively. The smallest increase, 27 percent, was among White students.

There were also differences between students aspiring to attend two vs. four years of college. The latter had higher composite scores irrespective of their anticipated college major. The biggest differences, 7 to 8.7 points, were among students planning to major in engineering, English & foreign languages, ethnic & multidisciplinary studies, and science (biological & physical, computer sciences & math). The smallest differences (1.9 to 2.7 points) and the lowest overall composite scores (16 to 18.7) were among students planning to major in community, family, & personal services; health administration & assisting; and repair, production, & construction.

One criticism of standardized tests is that only the well-to-do can afford “expensive” prep courses. Critics stress “expensive” to emphasize their claim that prep courses advantage wealthier students. This is wrongheaded for two reasons.

First, prep courses are not that helpful. I analyzed the pre- and post-test scores of 205 students who took the ACT prep course offered by the tutoring center where I taught.

Before the course, students’ average pre-test score was 22.8 (consistent with the state average). After the course, their average post-test score was 23.6. Although mathematically significant, this increase makes no real, practical difference. Of course, not all students improved. Among those who did (presumably the most motivated), the average improvement was 2.8 points. The median was just 2 points.

These modest improvements are typical for test prep courses and cannot, alone, change the trajectory of anyone’s academic career. Further, the data do not support the contention that the inability to take a prep course, per se, is preventing deserving students from going to college.

While there may be barriers to accessing test prep materials, wealth is not one of them.The second, more important point is that test prep materials are available for free either through high-school programs or online. While there may be social or circumstantial barriers to accessing the online materials, wealth is not one of them. I’ve never met a high-school student without a smartphone.

Finally, it’s important to reiterate that an ACT prep course simply cannot substitute for four years of high school. Accessibility to a prep course is not what’s standing between an unprepared student and college admission. It’s unfair to students to claim otherwise.

One of the more ill-conceived criticisms of standardized tests is that they prevent poor, working class, and minority students from attending elite schools, thereby limiting their potential for success. This is a ruse.

The so-called elite schools admit only a very small portion of college students and a similarly small portion of applicants (irrespective of their standardized test scores). Even if every applicant’s ACT score improved by 10 points, or the test was eliminated altogether, the probability that any particular student would be admitted to an elite school is vanishingly small.

Besides, even if admitted, not every student will thrive in an “elite” environment.

More to the point, attending an elite school is neither necessary nor sufficient for success. There are scores of successful people who went to non-elite (or lower-ranked) colleges and universities.

Consider these few. Former Disney CEO Michael Eisner went to Denison College; Warren Buffett went to University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Senator Elizabeth Warren went to the University of Houston (a commuter college); Ross Perot Sr. went to Texarkana Junior College; Kevin Johnson and Howard Schultz, CEOs of Starbucks, went to New Mexico State-Las Cruces and Northern Michigan University, respectively; and Steve Jobs famously dropped out of Reed College in Portland, Oregon. It’s not the school that made these people successful.

Likewise, we all know people with remarkably good—sometimes elite—educations who are living modest, non-celebrity, but productive, happy, and meaningful lives. (I’m one of them.) Conversely, there are dozens of very good schools that admit students with modest ACT scores. Even an elite school like my alma mater, The University of Chicago, sometimes admits students with an ACT score as low as 20.

Even if admitted, not every student will thrive in an “elite” environment.There are many paths to a great education and a successful life. Going to an elite school is not necessarily one of them.

Does the ACT discriminate? After 12 years of teaching this and similar standardized tests, I’ve learned that the only way to do well on the ACT is to take it after having learned the basic material that it covers. That takes several years of high school. There are no shortcuts, tricks, or special strategies (much to the dismay of many students and their parents).

As a diagnostic tool, the ACT is invaluable in identifying those who need help preparing for college, a vocation, or the mundane tasks of adulthood (like managing a household budget). Knowing that only 25 percent of students who took the ACT in 2021 met all four College Readiness Benchmarks, and that 55 percent (711,705 students) were “below proficient” in understanding complex texts, are critical pieces of information if one seriously wants to help students succeed.

Is the ACT biased? Yes, it is. It favors those students who have learned the basic material taught in high school, irrespective of their sex, race, or circumstance.

Frederick Prete, Ph.D., is on the biology faculty at Northeastern Illinois University and writes the Substack Everything Is Biology.