Is the ACT still important to high school students in Alabama? Here’s what the experts say


Kaitlyn Jenkins felt well prepared for college.

She took dual-enrollment classes offered by her high school in Phenix City. She had a high GPA and passed her science and math classes. She took a robotics course and attended coding camps over the summer. And she had mentors she could rely on for help.

But one thing held her back: the ACT.

“Once I sat down and took the test, it was like my mind went blank,” said Jenkins, a computer specialist and volleyball player at Lawson State, who took the test. in 2020.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County Schools Assessments Score Highest Scores Since 2017 for Select Subjects)

Even though Auburn, her top pick, waived standardized testing requirements during the pandemic, Jenkins’ ACT score would have landed her in remedial classes, she said. So she chose to go to a school where she could jump straight into rigorous classes.

“I feel like the ACT shouldn’t stop you from wanting to go where you want to go,” she said. recently spoke with several students and administrators in high-poverty districts and analyzed pre-pandemic school finances and ACT data.

We wanted to understand why — amid policy shifts, funding shifts, and emerging research — students in Alabama continue to fight for the standardized test. We also wanted to understand why white and non-white students, and high-income and low-income students had such different test scores.

We also wanted to address another key question: does ACT still matter?

What do the tests measure?

The ACT calls its test an objective measure of achievement — and says the measure is better than a student’s grades or a school’s graduation rate.

Alabama has the highest graduation rate in the nation, but recent data shows the state still trails much of the country in ACT scores. Nationally, the gap between graduation rates and ACT scores has widened throughout the pandemic, according to a recent ACT study.

But research on how the test predicts college success is mixed. Pre-pandemic studies have shown that high school grades are more likely to determine whether a student completes college, while ACT scores are generally better at predicting high achievement during a student’s first or second year.

A recent study from the University of Chicago found that high school GPAs are better predictors of college completion than ACT scores. ACT-led studies have also recognized that the test alone is not enough to predict college education outcomes.

Why do some students do better than others?

Although there is some debate about the test’s ability to measure college readiness, experts agree that the ACT does not measure actual intelligence. Other studies have also suggested reasons why the results may be skewed.

Civil rights groups and fair testing advocates have called on states to limit high-stakes testing in schools and say the ACT is a more effective indicator of wealth and privilege than students’ actual knowledge .

“Is the predictive validity it provides, which is quite minimal, worth the heartache, pain and cost it creates?” said Akil Bello, a test prep expert who works at the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.

(READ MORE: Tennessee Sen. Bo Watson: In-person learning is a likely factor in improving state test scores)

The center also claimed that the emphasis on the test may restrict what is taught in the classroom and that some questions and passages still contain cultural biases.

Researchers are still trying to understand how race and gender influence student achievement.

A 1994 study from the University of South Florida found that among high schoolers with low GPAs, black students were even less likely to graduate from college than their non-black peers. The reverse, however, was true for black students with high GPAs; they were even more likely to obtain a university degree.

In 2014, the ACT found that female students who scored higher than their male counterparts in all subjects scored lower in the math and science sections of the ACT. The researchers suggested that there was a ranking bias against men, rather than testing for a bias against women.

A more recent study from the American Psychological Association also found that GPA and standardized test scores are less likely to accurately predict college success when broken down by ethnicity or gender, but noted that several factors can affect these results. In its report, the association called for more research on the topic and suggested that colleges take a closer look at their admissions criteria.

What help should students receive?

As researchers try to chart a path forward, Alabama colleges and K-12 schools continue to make critical decisions about how much and what type of testing support to provide to students.

As a former maths teacher, ACT supervisor and superintendent of Gadsden town schools, Tony Reddick said he sees “tremendous needs” in his district for test preparation and support. Reddick is now the superintendent of the system and he’s been known to take a weekly trip. at the high school gymnasium, where he teaches athletes ACT tips and tricks and helps them hone their math skills.

“Students must aspire to attend college in order to commit to preparing to take the ACT,” he said. “I get students who are just, ‘Hey, I just need a 19 or an 18.’ In many cases, they don’t even pass the ACT until the required state test in grade 11.”

State officials have ramped up college readiness efforts in 2020 and 2021, requiring all Alabama public schools to offer the ACT for free to 11th graders, requiring the free application for help federal students to graduate and increasing the number of career coaches in the state.

Alabama is also one of a dozen states that require high school students to take the ACT, and public schools can lose funding if they fail to administer the test.

But Alabama’s test providers said that while the test is still required for high school students, ACT preparation has recently taken a back seat in some districts, which may have focused on learning loss in d other areas, staff shortages or things like upgrading facilities during the pandemic.

Students may also have felt less pressure to perform well on the ACT and SAT, since many colleges waived test requirements in 2020 and 2021.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga-area schools are waiving SAT/ACT score requirements for the upcoming school year)

“Schools that have the funding, have access to the funding, have the supports in place, they push and keep going,” said Briana Morton of College Admissions Made Possible, which provides ACT readiness services to several high-poverty districts. in Alabama. “And it’s like we’re starting from scratch with schools that don’t have access to funding or don’t use funding in the way that they could, because they don’t see the need for it.”

Despite some of its flaws, Reddick believes the test is still an essential tool for measuring how well students are grasping classroom material. He also thinks it gives students who may struggle in certain areas another opportunity to balance their college applications.

That’s why, in addition to tutoring students in his spare time, he decided to invest and apply for grants to fund more programs, like ACT Boot Camps and ACT Bridge, which place tutors in classrooms and help to emphasize the importance of the test.

“It helps them achieve their respective goals in terms of applying to college or entering the job market,” Reddick said. “And of course it will improve their lives.”


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