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For 3rd Year in a Row, ACT Leaves Disadvantaged Students Behind

The ACT’s failure to update materials misleads all high schoolers, and harms economically disadvantaged students outright.

“Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men,—the balance wheel of the social machinery.” Horace Mann


Nowadays, American universities carry the torch of equality for our youth. Women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and other historically disenfranchised groups can find homes on college campuses. And their presence there can earn them a college education that is viewed by many as the golden ticket to success for the privileged and underprivileged alike. A college education brings a lifetime of perks, including greater prosperity, less unemployment, and more job satisfaction. Among the other benefits: an increase in political engagement and mental health!

A college education can help people of all types bridge the gaps of bias and privilege—but students have to get there first. One of the key components to college acceptance is performance on the ACT.

How ACT format updates changed everything

In 2015, ACT revamped its test, most notably in Reading and Science.

The new Reading section replaced a standard passage with a comparative format. Now, students must read two passages and evaluate the differences between them. The new Science section drastically altered the pacing of the exam by eliminating one of its seven passages without changing the number of questions or time allotment.

Overall, the entire exam is a little harder too, but I have no problems with any of these changes. I haven’t seen or heard of anything on the new exam that’s outside the realm of high school knowledge.

The problem is that the official practice materials, designed to prepare students for the test, changed slowly or, in some cases, still have not changed to match the new format!

Out-of-date materials are hurting kids

Until the 2018-19 edition, the Official ACT Prep Guide continued to feature exams of the pre-2015 format. That could leave students uncertain about the structure of the test. Are there going to be comparative reading questions or not? Will there be six science sections or seven? In a high-stress, fast-paced exam, understanding what comes next is as important as understanding the Pythagorean theorem.

There’s only so much complaining to be done about the “red book” now, though. All tests featured in it were recently updated to the current format, though they are still not hard enough.

Students practicing with school-ordered practice tests, however, are still facing a serious problem. That’s because schools obtain practice exams using an order form from Back in October, the 2018 order form was released.  Here’s what it looks like:

 Image of ACT 2018-19 Order Form


If you’re unfamiliar with this form, then the problem is easy to miss.

Look at the list of items for sale. Each item has a reference code. The first is 1460E. The second is 1163E. The first two digits of these item codes (“14” and “11”) indicate the year that the item was used as an official ACT exam.

None of the available materials (except for the writing test booklet, which covers an optional part of the exam) present students with the accurate test formats, such as those used every year starting in 2015. Only outdated exams are available.

In other words, they’re selling schools bad tests.

Why this affects economically disadvantaged students so much

More than half of college-bound students will take the ACT, and those students want test prep to help improve their scores. Unfortunately, ACT prep is pricey. For many families, it is an unaffordable expense that can cost $1000 per student, or more.

Students whose families are priced out of personalized ACT tutoring seek help from their high school. Schools, especially public schools, need to offer this service cheaply, so they purchase the most affordable, trustworthy materials available to them: the official practice tests sold by ACT.

These are the tests that those teachers will teach from. They’re the tests that will be distributed to students. They’re the tests students will take in classrooms and libraries and dining rooms at home. They’re the tests students will use to establish pacing. They’re the tests students will use to develop overall test-taking strategies.

They’re the tests that would prepare students for incredible ACT scores – if they were taking the ACT in 2011.

Students whose families can afford test prep tutoring aren’t as impacted by the old practice tests because their tutors can explain how the new format works and can teach strategies that account for the changes. Test prep tutors are plugged into the industry and know how to coach a student to success, regardless of what materials the ACT is selling.

Put simply, some families can pay to overcome the obstacle of bad practice materials. Others can’t.

For the kids all over America who are priced out of specialized test prep tutoring, the outdated practice tests are more than just misleading. They’re unfair. They prepare students for one test and then score them on another. And they do it for what could very well be the most important test in their lives to this point.

A test provider’s responsibility to students

The ACT is the test that determines where students can go to college and what scholarships are available to them. As a result, it’s a test that determines whether they’ll get the increased prosperity, satisfaction, and mental health that a college education can help provide. The ACT is the most popular test of its kind and fails to adequately prepare students because the proper materials are not available.

That’s not the students’ fault. It is the fault of ACT.

And just in case you’re thinking it’s unreasonable to expect new materials this quickly, let’s consider how the SAT handled test prep after a major update.

When College Board updated the SAT in March 2016, they returned to the classic 1600-point scoring system, made the essay optional, and removed the guessing penalty. The changes did not come without complaints, but few of those complaints were aimed at the ability of students to prepare for the test. In fact, College Board partnered with the Khan Academy and gave them access to the new exam so early that extensive, free prep was available on the date of the partnership announcement – a full nine months before the new exam was first proctored. Among the prep offered are eight full-length practice tests are available free for download on Khan academy – no account, no login, no cost.

We need to continue “equalizing”

I think that if Horace Mann could see what education in America looks like 170 years after he called it “a great equalizer,” he would be blown away. Over 90% of adults have completed twelve years of public schooling. For the most part, literacy comes standard. Unthinkable technology provides instant access to all of the world’s knowledge. And in many ways, education has leveled the playing field between the privileged and underprivileged classes.

But that doesn’t mean everything is perfect. If education is a principle that we value as Americans, then we should make the barrier to entry as low as possible.

Finding success in college can be hard enough for economically disadvantaged students. We shouldn’t be making things harder by introducing unnecessary obstacles before they even get in the door.

When institutions claim that their mission is to “help people achieve education and workplace success” (as ACT does), we can reasonably expect that they’ll facilitate that achievement through transparent communications and timely updates of their vital materials. This is something that the ACT has failed to do for three years.

And real students are suffering.