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Marten Roorda

If your doctor diagnoses you with an illness, do you recommend the doctor be fired, or the thermometer be thrown away?

Recently, a lawsuit was filed against the University of California system demanding immediate elimination of the ACT test and the SAT as admission requirements. Among the assertions is that inherent biases in the development of the tests lead to lower scores for some racial/ethnic groups than for others.

It’s true that not all student groups perform the same on the ACT. But it’s false to claim that this means there is something wrong with the test. Instead, it diagnoses larger problems in the U.S. education system: problems of unequal access to a high-quality education that need to be treated.

ACT works very hard to ensure that its tests are fair to all students. Questions and passages are thoroughly evaluated at multiple stages, both internally and by diverse panels of external experts, to eliminate any potential biases in content, wording, or cultural assumptions.

Questions are also evaluated statistically for evidence of differential performance by one racial/ethnic group or gender during preliminary testing; when test questions show such evidence, they are removed from further consideration. This helps guarantee that students with the same level of ability will have the same probability of answering any given question correctly, regardless of their backgrounds.

The fairness of ACT scores is also evaluated by examining the relationships between scores and educational outcomes for various student groups. This research has shown consistently that ACT scores accurately predict success in college, not just in the first year but throughout—in terms of grades, retention rate (the percentage of students who continue college after their first year), and graduation rate.

The majority of existing achievement gaps across racial/ethnic groups and annual family income ranges can be attributed to differences in high school course taking and grades, school characteristics, and other factors such as how much post-high school education students say they want.

Even Saul Geiser, a former director of admissions research for the UC system who has been critical of using the SAT or ACT for admissions purposes, wrote: “The growing correlation between race and test scores over the past 25 years reflects the growing segregation of Latino and black students in California’s poorest, lowest-performing schools.”

Nearly every standardized assessment of academic preparation—not only the ACT and the SAT but also Smarter Balanced and the Nation’s Report Card—reports similar achievement gaps across student groups. Such differences also emerge in measures used in hiring, certification, and professional licensure in thousands of occupations—and have for decades.

What’s more, high school grades, college grades, college retention and college completion all show similar group differences.

But standardized tests can do something that other indicators can’t. High school grades reflect conditions within a single school. Standardized tests offer a common yardstick across schools. Standardized tests can both reveal and help minimize the impact of grade inflation, as well as create comparability within the fragmented American educational system.

ACT research shows that test scores and high school grades each provide important yet unique information, and that combined together they more accurately predict college performance than either alone.

Why eliminate valuable information from the admission process? ACT advocates for using multiple measures — including test scores, courses taken, grades earned, class rank, etc. — to better understand students’ academic strengths and weaknesses and to identify those who may need additional supports and services when they get to campus.

Blaming tests for differences in educational quality and access doesn’t eliminate or reduce these inequities any more than throwing away the thermometer gets rid of a fever. It’s time we start focusing our attention on what matters: making sure that all students have rigorous academic preparation and access to high-quality teaching and learning.

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Marten Roorda is chief executive officer of ACT, a nonprofit that owns and administers the ACT test.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Richard Bernstein 3 months ago3 months ago

    The paragraph below says it all.

    But standardized tests can do something that other indicators can’t. High school grades reflect conditions within a single school. Standardized tests offer a common yardstick across schools. Standardized tests can both reveal and help minimize the impact of grade inflation, as well as create comparability within the fragmented American educational system.

  2. Stephen Lauren Williams 3 months ago3 months ago

    This biased essay has no place in EdSource! If my doctor is using a tire pressure gauge and insisting it is a thermometer, I’ll get rid of both!

    Replies

    • Ethan Kopelman 3 months ago3 months ago

      That’s such a meaningless analogy. Standardized tests, ACT included, require students use critical reasoning skills to solve problems given a limited amount of information. How that skill is not predictive of success in both college and life is beyond me.

  3. Paul Muench 4 months ago4 months ago

    Given that UC/CSU already handle the SAT and ACT, it sure seems that adding the SBAC to the overall mix should be possible.

  4. Mary Ellen 4 months ago4 months ago

    Other countries rely solely on nationwide tests to determine eligibility to attend a public university.
    In the U.S., public and high school libraries have test prep books. My local urban high school had free test prep sessions on weekends.

    There is support for students who are motivated and willing to put time and effort into preparing for the SAT/ACT tests.

  5. Bo Loney 4 months ago4 months ago

    Thank you for adding your voice to this debate.