Ethical College Admissions: Revolutionary

Jim Jump considers the implications of the ACT scoring changes.

October 14, 2019

How often is there revolutionary change in college admission? That’s an essay rather than a short-answer question. It’s probably a great topic for a column, and I’d be interested in hearing readers’ thoughts about examples of revolutionary change.

If the answer to every college admission question is “It depends,” then the answer in this case depends on how you define “revolutionary.” The most obvious revolutionary change I can come up with is online application. In a very short period of time, maybe five years, I saw a shift from all of my students submitting paper applications to none. That seems to qualify as revolutionary change.

But what other recent changes qualify? It has been nearly a century since essays and recommendation letters entered the application process. Test-optional admission celebrated its 50th birthday a year ago. In the course of my career, I have seen a shift from colleges admitting well-rounded students to colleges crafting a well-rounded class. But what other recent changes are revolutionary, lasting and significant? For example, will committee-based evaluation revolutionize college admission?

Last week ACT announced three changes that could change the landscape and future of college admissions testing in multiple ways. All of the changes will begin with the September 2020 administration of the test. ACT presented the changes as enhancements “that keep students’ needs in mind,” and they are, but the cynics among us will wonder whether the changes are designed to help students “reach their maximum potential for college and career readiness” or are instead a salvo in ACT’s battle with the SAT for market share.

The change that has received the least attention might be the most consequential. Students will be able to take the ACT online at a test center on national ACT dates, with results from the multiple-choice sections of the test available as early as two business days after the test is taken.

That seems revolutionary, but is it? My daughter took the Medical College Admission Test online several years ago, and apparently all administrations of that test have been conducted online since 2007. Tests such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language, Graduate Record Examination and Law School Admissions Test can be taken online, all at a test center.

It’s certainly not a new idea. More than 30 years ago, an admissions dean friend shared with me that the College Board was considering introducing an online SAT testing format. He reported that the College Board believed it could design a “divergent” online SAT where a correct response would lead to one next question and an incorrect response a different question, and that such a test could produce an “accurate” score with far fewer questions. That was supposedly the hang-up -- fear that the public would balk, not trusting such a test being the same as a paper SAT. It is certainly possible that I misunderstood or that my gullibility was being exposed and taking advantage of.

The second change is that students who have previously taken the ACT will now be able to retake individual sections of the test. That has also been suggested before and seems to make sense as a convenience and customer service for students. Why should a student who needs or wants to improve only the science section of the ACT have to retake the entire test?

Why indeed? That raises more fundamental questions about both the use of test scores and the assumptions underlying standardized testing.

Both the SAT and ACT have always been designed to be marathons rather than sprints. The physical and mental ordeal of spending three to four hours testing has always been part of the game. But are there valid reasons for that? Does a longer, more grueling test produce “better,” more valid results? Do the tests measure aptitude (or whatever they claim to be measuring nowadays) or stamina?

Those questions are particularly worth asking today, when we know that student attention spans are not what they once were. I’m the first to argue that schools should be countercultural in an instant gratification culture, that we should be teaching and preparing students to be able to devote sustained attention and energy to things for which the value will be seen only in the long term. That often feels like a losing battle. If that’s the case, wouldn’t that impact the reliability of results from a lengthy college admissions test? Ignoring the logistical challenges, would both students and colleges be better off with testing done in shorter bites?

Single-section retesting also raises questions about how test scores should be interpreted. We all know that a student’s test scores have context. If you and I have identical SAT or ACT scores, but my family has spent hundreds or thousands of dollars for test prep while you took the test “cold,” those scores don’t mean the same thing. The change to taking a single section of the ACT means that we will have more “curated” ACT scores. Should a score where multiple sections have been taken multiple times be seen as the same as a score earned in a single test administration?

That raises other questions. If more students earn higher scores from being able to retest a single section, do those scores become less meaningful? Is it easier to coach a student for a single section than an entire test? And what happens to students who don’t have the means to retest?

The third change is that ACT score reports will now include a “superscore,” with the student’s best scores by section if they have taken the ACT more than once. ACT says that this change will “support the growing trend of students taking the test multiple times,” but “encourage” might be a more appropriate verb than “support.” According to a New York Times article on the changes, ACT research shows that superscoring is more predictive of a student’s performance in college courses.

What is interesting about the change is that until recently ACT had claimed that superscoring was an inappropriate use of the test. The reversal is not as dramatic or revolutionary as when the College Board went from claiming that the SAT was immune to test prep to selling its own test prep materials, but it is nevertheless the kind of reversal in position that might sabotage a politician’s career. So what happened?

Did the research about superscoring lead to the policy change, or did the policy change lead to the research? I suspect this is a case where ACT decided to adjust to the realities of the marketplace. Many colleges and universities have ignored the opinion that the ACT shouldn’t be superscored because superscoring benefited their profiles -- and, of course, students. It is also the case that ACT score reports, unlike SAT score reports, only report the results from a single test administration. That is great as long as you earn your best scores for every section on the same day.

The ACT announcement is at worst interesting and at best revolutionary. Will the SAT follow suit? Stay tuned.


Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Virginia. He has been at St. Christopher's since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women's basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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