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Officials at the ACT — a college admissions test taken by more than 1.9 million students each year — announced a policy change earlier this month that will allow students to retake single sections of the five-part test rather than having to sit for the entire exam in hopes of improving their score. Typically, the test takes about three hours to complete.
In an email to The Michigan Daily, University of Michigan spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald said the University would need more information from ACT officials in order to determine the impact the changes will have on admissions policies.
“Clarification from ACT regarding how test information will be shared and viewable by universities is still unclear,” Fitzgerald wrote. “The admissions team will continue to monitor this situation as policies are shared and make changes to the process where appropriate.”
The change comes amid concerns over testing-based anxiety, the importance of standardized testing and its role in perpetuating social inequities. Critics of the change worry it will increase the role of socioeconomic status on performance, since those who come from higher-class backgrounds likely have more resources that will help them succeed on the exam, such as access to coaching and the money to take the exam multiple times.
For Michael Hartt, a junior at Grosse Pointe North High School, the change has relieved test-related anxiety.
“It makes me feel less apprehensive about preparing,” Hartt said. “I know that if I get a score in section that I’m not satisfied with, I can study for that single section to get my score up.”
In announcing the change, ACT leadership said a “superscore,” which is the culmination of the highest scores on each section of the test without regard to when it was taken to create a new composite score, is more indicative of how students will perform in college courses. Previously, students had to retake the test in full each time to obtain a higher score.
According to the ACT website, students can take the test up to twelve times, though the majority of students take it no more than twice. The test comes with a price tag of $68, or $52 without the writing section, though there are fee waivers available.
There is no set price for the individual sections yet, but ACT officials expect it to be cheaper than the price to retake the test in full, the New York Times reported.
For some, like Nursing sophomore Zoe Gierlinger, who received extra time to take the ACT, the decision is a step in the right direction toward a more equitable testing process, especially for those who receive extra time to complete the test due to medical necessity.
“For someone like me who received extra time on the ACT, it would most likely be easier to focus with the sections divided,” Gierlinger said. “Otherwise, you test for six straight hours and ultimately it becomes harder to keep focus, although the extra time is necessary. Dividing the sections would help improve concentration and allow students to perform at their potential.”
LSA junior Jason Fernando co-founded Excel Tutoring, a standardized test preparation company, in 2017 to bridge the gap between those who receive extensive test preparation and those who do not. Fernando echoed Gierlinger’s point, adding he thinks the new policy will allow lower-income college applicants to achieve higher scores on the standardized exams.
“I think this will allow for a less of a barrier for students who don’t have the means to take the [full] test over and over again,” Fernando said. “For lower-income students, a cheaper test that is not as high-stakes can be more advantageous for them, and let them knock down barriers that they hadn’t before.”
The score has received mixed feedback from colleges. A Georgetown University official noted the school would not accept individual superscore results.
According to the Common Data Set, 74 percent of the Fall 2017 incoming freshman class at U-M submitted an ACT score when applying. The University reports the 25th percentile to 75th percentile of the incoming class’s performance on the test.
The Fall 2017 class’s range was a 30-33 out of a total of 36 points — placing the class in the 93rd to 98th percentile nationally.
In 2016, the state of Michigan switched from offering one free ACT test to a free SAT for all students in the state. Before the switch, the state had used the ACT as its free college assessment exam since 2007.
A 2018 study from the National Bureau of Economics Research found that while half of SAT-takers retake the exam after their first try, these retake rates are significantly lower among students from low-income backgrounds. The study found that race impacts retake rates, as well— students classified as underrepresented minorities are nine percentage points less likely to retake the SAT than white students. The College Board — the organization that administers the SAT and Advanced Placement tests — cited the study as evidence that students who retake their exams often receive higher scores than those who choose to take it only once.
Joshua Goodman, one of the authors of the study and a professor of economics at Brandeis University, said while the data from his study is specific to the SAT, it can be generalized to the ACT because of the similarities between the two tests.
“These are two entities that are competing over students,” Goodman said. “And they are competing by offering the test as many times a year as they can, trying to make it as easy to take as possible. And I think this move was partly because the ACT was sort of trying to figure out how they can make their test more appealing by making students think they can get higher scores the easiest way.”
Goodman said higher-income students often have more information about how retaking the tests will improve their scores, making the ACT’s change possibly detrimental to lower-income students during the college application process.
“It seems like higher-income students already understand that part of the college admissions game, which is why they are retaking these exams so frequently,” Goodman said. “But then low-income students may not quite realize that. So if that’s the case, if there’s a disparity in the quality of information students have about the value of retakes, then making retakes easier to do may actually exacerbate gaps in college enrollment.”
Hartt, who has already taken the ACT, said he feels this change is coming too abruptly. He said there are already students in his graduating class who have taken the test more than once who may have preferred to only retake a section. Hartt also said he felt this change has the potential to allow students to cherry-pick their sections into what he called an “artificially higher” composite score.
“I’m almost certain that for the universities that I’ll be applying to will make it so that you can’t superscore the ACT, so everything will pretty much be the same as it was,” Hartt said. “But I would say from a standpoint of having already taken it, it just makes me a little bit upset that I worked really hard and went through all the processes to get the score that I got, and that students now will be able to get artificially higher scores because they’re retaking one section at a time.”
Additionally, Hartt said this change in layout is catering to shortening attention spans students are experiencing, which he believes is not a good idea. Hartt said even though the change has made him less anxious about preparing for the exam, he still views the policy in a negative light.
“I am against the new development because I don’t think that it follows what the ACT originally was set to do,” Hartt said. “I think it was originally created to measure intellect, and I think that having the sections in a certain order and having to take the sections one after the next makes the test more difficult and really tests an individual’s intellect and their ability to continue focusing on things for a long period of time.”