The ACT question: Why allowing students to replace specific section scores is problematic

November 20, 2019 — by Benjamin Li and Alan Zu

The ACT commission recently announced that students are will be allowed not only to retake sections of the ACT, but also to replace their lower section scores with their best scores. This change was meant to alleviate some of the stress on students for test taking by allowing them to study for one section of the test at a time.

This enables students to essentially take the ACT up to four times. Each time, they  can focus on one particular section — among them are reading, grammar, math and science. Having pieced it all together, they can superscore for optimal results. 

This means that even if students perform poorly on certain sections, they can still achieve a perfect 36 by combining several test attempts, which takes much less skill than students who can score a 36 in one sitting. These changes greatly lower the difficulty of scoring a 36, detracting from the original implications and achievement of getting the highest score.

Although at first this may seem beneficial for students, it actually takes away from the meaning of the ACT as a whole. If colleges become accustomed to seeing artificially high ACT scores from a larger group of students, true gradations among achievement will be muddied.
Admissions officers in turn will simply adjust for this inflation of scores. Perhaps for the first couple of years, such a policy would benefit students. In the long run, however, nothing will have changed: Average ACT scores will be higher, but so will colleges’ expectations for ACT scores. This leaves the fundamental problem in students trying to more easily impress colleges with a higher score still unresolved.

The new ACT changes also benefit well-off families at the expense of lower-income households. As standardized testing has come under increasing fire for being less and less meritocratic, the ACT adopting the new policies will only worsen criticisms.

Before taking the ACT, students must first pay an entrance fee of $49.50. While this amount of money may seem trivial to some, there are many households that are not able to afford this fee multiple times, let alone four times to maximize each section’s score in the ACT. While an ACT fee waiver does exist, students who apply for the waiver can only use it twice.

When deciding who gets in and who is rejected, colleges take many aspects of a student’s application into account. If a student underperforms, or is simply unlucky during the ACT, that score may be the factor that pushes colleges to deny a particular student. In this new system, it’s more likely that students will be able to present what may amount to false credentials to admissions committees.

The changes to the ACT hinder both students and colleges, only serving to create a bigger difference between affluent and underprivileged households. In order to preserve fairness and truly demonstrate a test-taker’s academic ability, the ACT should undo its changes and prevent score inflation. Don’t fix what isn’t broken.

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At UC Berkeley, PhD student Abrar Abidi and research assistant Yvonne Hao have embarked on a goal of creating hand sanitizer for the Bay Area's most vulnerable populations, including the homeless and the incarcerated. Their hand sanitizer includes glycerol mixed with other products, in accordance with a formula from the World Health Organization. So far, they are producing 120 hundreds of gallons of sanitizer each week. Photo courtesy of Roxanne Makasdjian with UC Berkeley.


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