Tests

One of the effects of our social distancing is that the April 4 national testing date for the ACT test is not going to occur. The next dates for students to take the test are June 13 and July 18. When I heard about the cancelled date, I went into one of my grandpa “I remember when” modes. I tried to only express compassion and understanding and not express my own memories out loud, but it was a moment when I noticed how much the world is changing. It is common for students these days to take the test at least two times so that they can discard the lowest score and use the highest score to submit to colleges. It is also common for students to purchase the official ACT Prep Guide with a practice test at the end of the book and pay for the ACT Online Prep with its online preparation and study guidelines. You can even pay extra for live, online instruction and on-demand videos to help improve your scores. ACT Academy is a free online learning tool and practice test program that is available to all students.

So here’s my grandpa moment. Back when I took the ACT, we were told that there was nothing you could do to prepare except to get a good night’s sleep and bring multiple number 2 pencils with you. The test is curriculum-based, which means it covers topics common to most high school courses. The test is divided into four multiple choice subject tests: English, mathematics, reading, and scion reasoning. The number of correct answers are converted into a composite score that ranges from 1 to 36. It is generally assumed that a score of 28 is needed to get into elite colleges. That place the student in the top 88th percentile nationally.

For comparison, the other national test that many high school students take is the SAT, which uses larger numbers for its scores. A 28 on the ACT is roughly comparable to 1310 on the SAT.

At any rate, I think that probably my best skill when I took the ACT was the skill of test taking. Multiple choice tests can be taken following a simple regimen: First, read every question very carefully and mark the answers of which you are certain. Second, re-read the questions you skipped the first time and see how many answers you can eliminate as incorrect. If you have narrowed the choice to only two answers, follow your intuition - you have a 50% chance of making the right choice. Third, go back through the still unanswered questions. Re-reading them can give you insights that you missed before. Try to eliminate as many obviously incorrect answers as possible and make a agues from the remaining possibilities. That’s it. The test is timed, so those who read more quickly are rewarded. I’m a family fast reader so I usually had time to get through all three steps when taking a timed test.

I didn’t take multiple tests. I didn’t repeat the ACT in search of a higher score. I simply took the test. I applied to only one college.

The world is different now. College juniors are more uptight about test scores and more fearful about not getting into the college of their choice. While they are worrying, the coronavirus pandemic is re-defining college education. Most US colleges have changed to all online education for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year. It is unclear which schools will resume residential programs and how quickly they will be allowed to do so. One educator with whom I spoke recently speculated that the pandemic might signal the end of residential graduate education with virtually all masters and doctoral programs being taught in online formats. That same person commented that there would be a temporary need for in person education at the undergraduate level because there are too many Americans who don’t have access to high speed internet. Online classes, he maintained, works best for students who are on campus and have access to campus Internet services. It is a bit strange to think of students sitting in their dorm rooms instead of walking across the campus to classrooms, but I guess that was already occurring on many US college campuses before they emptied out in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.

It happens that I took the ACT test 50 years ago this summer. A half of a century is long enough for there to be many changes. It is also long enough for my experience to have little relevance for today’s high school juniors. For what it is worth, I think it has been about 50 years since anyone asked me what my ACT score was. I don’t remember. It was good enough that I went directly to college in the fall without ever attending my senior year of high school. But my ACT score wasn’t a factor in my choice of graduate school. I had taken the GRE by then. Those scores also are forgotten. With the degrees I earned, I easily gained admission to do graduate work without repeating the GRE a few years ago.

So my advice to high school students is to take a deep breath and relax. Go ahead and do all of the ACT preparation that you can manage. Use the free materials and avoid spending extra money. Then get a good night’s sleep before you take the test. Go in rested and use your test-taking skills. It’s important, but it isn’t the only important thing in your life this year and it may not be the most important thing. Right now our society is examining education and the role of college in measuring life success. Your ability to adapt to changing circumstances and to learn in an ever-changing environment will be more important than the scores on any single test.

As this pandemic is teaching us, life has many tests that are even more challenging.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!