December 22, 2017

College Readiness is More Than an ACT Score

By Allison Tu

The story about Fayette County students who scored a perfect 36 on the ACT rightly affirms local students with academic ambitions and extracurricular chops. But it also raises some important questions about the test itself.

Barely half of Kentucky’s 2017 graduating class met the ACT benchmarks—the standards that arguably tell us if we’re capable of success in college or not.

The ACT is consistently hailed as the gold standard of college readiness; our postsecondary education prospects and qualification for scholarships depend on it.

But it gives little insight into the non-academic traits—maturity, responsibility, determination or grit—that contribute to our success in college and beyond.

Furthermore, only a few students have the resources to take the expensive prep courses that are proven to increase scores. According to a report from the ACT test maker, 62 percent of high-income students meet three or more ACT benchmarks, while only 20 percent of low-income students do.

Stark racial differences that don’t reflect actual academic performance also persist: almost 50 percent of white students meet at least three of the four benchmarks compared to just 11 percent of African-American students.

Partly in response to this perceived inequity, the Student Voice Team spent a school year gathering and analyzing what seniors and recent graduates from all over the state have to say about their experiences preparing for life after graduation. Ready or Not, Stories from Students Behind the Statistics shines a light on the people behind some of the most cited college readiness statistics.

Almost every student interviewed had something powerful to say about the ACT, and some raised compelling questions about it.

There was Suzie, a Trigg County senior who works to pay her family’s bills and was forced to spend part of her small income to retake the ACT. “The ACT doesn’t measure you on what you know; it measures how you test,” she told us. “I think the ACT sets people like me up for failure. I have to take a remedial math course in college because my ACT math score is a 20. But, I have to pay for that out of my money, and I don’t get credit for it.”

There was also Blair, a senior from Jefferson County, who spoke candidly of the ACT’s bias toward students like herself from wealthier backgrounds. “I paid my way into it,” she said. “No, I didn’t cheat and pay someone else to take the test for me, but I paid a man to teach me math specifically for the ACT, and I can see that it made a difference.”

Fifteen percent of the nearly 500 seniors from five different high schools we surveyed reported taking the ACT just once because they couldn’t afford a retake. At the same time, 84 percent of the students who’d purchased prep courses reported earning higher scores.

What I’ve taken away from Ready or Not and my own experiences is that for too many students, the ACT has become a barrier to college. For these students, the test is more a reflection of access to resources rather than ability or potential to succeed in college.

It’s time that we stop evaluating students as a set of numbers and start looking at the complex people behind a maze of standardized test scores and GPAs. College readiness is dictated by so much more than just a three-hour test.

And if we don’t start listening to students who have directly experienced the limitations of the ACT as a postsecondary predictor, we stand to lose some of the commonwealth’s most talented, deserving young people.

This op-ed originally ran in the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Allison Tu

Allison Tu

Allison is a Yoda Corps Advisor of KSVT and former member. She graduated from Manual High School in 2019 and is a student at Harvard University.