Impossible Standards

Why standardized tests such as the ACT place an unnecessary pressure on students planning to attend college.


Elly Keyes, Reporter

When considering which path to take after high school, many students who choose to look into college will find themselves scrambling to prepare for one test which will play a part in making the choice of schools for them: the ACT. The ACT is a form of standardized testing taken by high school juniors and seniors, and used in college admissions. However, in more recent years the ACT has been debated by teachers, students, and parents regarding its relevance as a method of determining which students will be the most successful college.

What is the ACT?

The ACT is a multiple choice test made up of five subjects: English, math, reading, science, and an optional writing portion. This traditional paper-and-pencil test is used as an entrance exam by most colleges and universities in the United States, making it a seemingly essential step in a student’s high school career in order to get accepted into the college of their choice. This test is used among colleges to make admission and course placement decisions. It is also used by scholarship and loan agencies to determine candidates. The ACT is taken into consideration when looking at every aspect of a student’s ability to attend a college or university, but in more recent years it has become clear that continuing to use this outdated form of measuring a student’s “potential” while pursuing a higher education only harms students in the long run. 

Why is the ACT irrelevant in schools today?

Standardized testing as a method of determining college admissions began in the 1920s as a scholarship test for ivy league schools. These tests came with a need to increase access to higher education, as up to this point colleges and universities were reserved for only the upper classes. However, in more recent years it has been argued that while effective at first, the ACT and standardized testing has long since hurt rather than helped disenfranchised students. According to a study done by ACT in 2016, the average ACT score of higher income students was 23.3, while lower income students earned on average a score of 19.5, this gap being an increase between the years 2012 and 2016. This difference in scores is due largely in part to the fact that higher income students have access to more resources, such as tutors or study materials, which lower income students do not. The ability to better prepare for the test helps some students earn higher scores than others. According to a study done by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), students who had higher GPAs and moderate test scores did better in college than those who earned higher test scores but had a lower GPA. This is largely because success in education is not based on a student’s academic proficiency, but on their self-discipline and hard work. 

Similar to most other forms of standardized testing, the ACT has negative impacts on the mental health of students. From the minute a student enters high school they are reminded of the importance their ACT scores will have on their future college choices, and this causes a building pressure for students which can have an impact on their performance. As a result of the testing anxiety experienced by students, their mental health can be harmed with a rise in low self-esteem or frustration. Students find themselves forgetting information they studied during the test due to this anxiety, and therefore the ACT from the start is not an accurate measure of the knowledge a student has. This method of using only multiple choice testing means that the test fails to account for students who learn and demonstrate academic proficiency in other ways such as through writing.

What are some ways to transition from the ACT and into alternatives?

The ACT does more harm than good for students, and one solution which helps make the transition toward no longer requiring test scores comes in the form of test-optional colleges, which do not require that a test score be sent in before a student is admitted. Colleges and Universities have slowly begun transitioning away from these standardized tests and moving toward a test-optional format. By 2014 the number of colleges which did not require ACT or SAT test scores was 850. However, with the pandemic more colleges and universities than ever have started moving toward test-optional, and even “test blind” systems which do not consider test scores when looking at admissions. Though this is on a trial basis of one or two years for most colleges, it is likely that for many this will remain a permanent measure.