Don’t blame tests for differences in educational quality and access

Credit: iStockCredit: iStockMarten RoordaDecember 16, 2019Marten RoordaIf your doctor diagnoses you with an illness, do you recommend the doctor be fired, or the thermometer be thrown away?
Recently, a lawsuit was filed against the University of California system demanding immediate elimination of the ACT test and the SAT as admission requirements. Among the assertions is that inherent biases in the development of the tests lead to lower scores for some racial/ethnic groups than for others.
It’s true that not all student groups perform the same on the ACT. But it’s false to claim that this means there is something wrong with the test. Instead, it diagnoses larger problems in the U.S. education system: problems of unequal access to a high-quality education that need to be treated.
ACT works very hard to ensure that its tests are fair to all students. Questions and passages are thoroughly evaluated at multiple stages, both internally and by diverse panels of external experts, to eliminate any potential biases in content, wording, or cultural assumptions.
Questions are also evaluated statistically for evidence of differential performance by one racial/ethnic group or gender during preliminary testing; when test questions show such evidence, they are removed from further consideration. This helps guarantee that students with the same level of ability will have the same probability of answering any given question correctly, regardless of their backgrounds.
The fairness of ACT scores is also evaluated by examining the relationships between scores and educational outcomes for various student groups. This research has shown consistently that ACT scores accurately predict success in college, not just in the first year but throughout—in terms of grades, retention rate (the percentage of students who continue college after their first year), and graduation rate.
The majority of existing achievement gaps across racial/ethnic groups and annual family income ranges can be attributed to differences in high school course taking and grades, school characteristics, and other factors such as how much post-high school education students say they want.
Even Saul Geiser, a former director of admissions research for the UC system who has been critical of using the SAT or ACT for admissions purposes, wrote: “The growing correlation between race and test scores over the past 25 years reflects the growing segregation of Latino and black students in California’s poorest, lowest-performing schools.”
Nearly every standardized assessment of academic preparation—not only the ACT and the SAT but also Smarter Balanced and the Nation’s Report Card—reports similar achievement gaps across student groups. Such differences also emerge in measures used in hiring, certification, and professional licensure in thousands of occupations—and have for decades.
For more discussion about the college tests, please see the commentaries below:
What’s more, high school grades, college grades, college retention and college completion all show similar group differences.
But standardized tests can do something that other indicators can’t. High school grades reflect conditions within a single school. Standardized tests offer a common yardstick across schools. Standardized tests can both reveal and help minimize the impact of grade inflation, as well as create comparability within the fragmented American educational system.
ACT research shows that test scores and high school grades each provide important yet unique information, and that combined together they more accurately predict college performance than either alone.
Why eliminate valuable information from the admission process? ACT advocates for using multiple measures — including test scores, courses taken, grades earned, class rank, etc. — to better understand students’ academic strengths and weaknesses and to identify those who may need additional supports and services when they get to campus.
Blaming tests for differences in educational quality and access doesn’t eliminate or reduce these inequities any more than throwing away the thermometer gets rid of a fever. It’s time we start focusing our attention on what matters: making sure that all students have rigorous academic preparation and access to high-quality teaching and learning.
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Marten Roorda is chief executive officer of ACT, a nonprofit that owns and administers the ACT test.
The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.
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