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What is ACT's future as colleges drop standardized test requirements during pandemic?

Testing locations cut in response to coronavirus, so schools cut tests, too

While the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa still require the ACT or SAT, Iowa's
While the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa still require the ACT or SAT, Iowa’s Board of Regents has seen pressure to go test-optional. (The Gazette)
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Many high school students were supposed to wake up early Saturday morning and head to Cedar Rapids Xavier High School by 8 a.m., armed with a No. 2 pencil — not to be mistaken with a mechanical pencil — an eraser, a calculator and maybe a watch.

They were intended to hear carefully written instructions about the importance of filling in circles heavily and darkly and erasing entirely when changing an answer.

They anticipated taking the ACT — a task completed by millions of students across the country each year aiming to get into the college of their choice.

But the novel coronavirus derailed those plans.

The pandemic also has forced the Iowa City-based testing company into a difficult position, with less testing capacity and more schools dropping standardized test requirements.

“The coronavirus has impacted our operations with the ACT and some of our other testing programs,” interim ACT CEO Janet Godwin told The Gazette. “So many companies across the world, of course, have had their operations impacted, so we feel we are not alone.”

The precipitous drop in testing locations might be one of the more visible signs of the coronavirus’ toll on ACT. In late May, ACT announced more than 2,600 canceled test locations for June in a 57-page PDF file. That includes more than 100 cancellations in Wisconsin alone.

At the locations still open, capacity was slashed by at least 50 percent, Godwin said. More people wanted to take the June ACT than there was space for, she said.

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It’s unclear exactly how much revenue will be lost, but ACT charges students $52 to take the test, excluding the writing portion.

But that’s far from the only challenge ACT faces.

Since 2018, ACT’s footprint in the Corridor has gone from about 900 workers to 800.

On May 28, the company announced voluntary resignations, a pause in pay raises and future cuts looming. Godwin did not provide any details on future cuts.

The company also parted ways with its chief executive officer, Marten Roorda. His total compensation was more than $1 million a year, per the latest Tax Form 990 filed. In the past six years, ACT has had three different CEOs.

More than 1,200 colleges and universities in the United States — ranging from big state schools such as the University of Nebraska to Ivy League schools such as Dartmouth University — have dropped standardized test requirements, according to FairTest, a Cambridge, Mass.-based group that advocates against standardized tests.

Critics say the ACT tests disproportionately help students who are white and come from more affluent backgrounds.

“When you rely on the tests, you end up creating more barriers for access to historically disenfranchised groups,” said Robert Schaeffer, executive director of FairTest.

But Godwin said the ACT — not high school grades — is better at “leveling the playing field.” The company provides waivers for students who can’t afford the test or test prep. Godwin said that benefits about 25 percent of students taking the test.

“We believe our scores are a way to help students differentiate themselves in the admissions process,” Godwin said. “To have an objective measure to demonstrate their level of academic achievement and readiness for college.”

More schools make ACT test optional

Between 2016 and 2019, ACT has seen a 14.7 percent drop in students taking its test. PBS reported last October that every 10 days on average, a school was dropping its standardized test requirements.

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Company leadership does not need to look far from its headquarters on Highway 1, just south of Interstate 80, to see the trend.

Twenty miles north, Cornell College in Mount Vernon went test-optional in late 2015.

The largest private university in Iowa, Drake University, also does not require the ACT or SAT, administered by New York-based College Board.

While Iowa’s three public universities — the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa — still require the ACT or SAT, Iowa’s Board of Regents has seen mounting pressure also to go test-optional.

The pandemic has accelerated that trend. Adam Ingersoll has seen it firsthand as the co-founder of Compass Education Group, a company offering test prep across the country.

“The recent surge is driven by concern for student safety and the lack of availability of testing at schools,” Ingersoll said. “Colleges are saying, ‘We would like to relieve this burden.’

“From the colleges’ perspective, it seems like the compassionate and sensible thing to do.”

The list of test-optional schools got much longer in May, when the University of California system announced it is dropping the ACT and SAT requirements for in-state applicants through 2024.

By 2025, the university plans to replace the ACT and SAT with its own test for in-state students.

“The public universities within the state of California as a group would be the College Board’s or the ACT’s single biggest client,” Ingersoll said.

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“Those universities collectively get hundreds of thousands of applications. ... That was terrible news for ACT.”

ACT’s Roorda actively lobbied for the California Board of Regents to continue using the ACT. He said in an open letter in January the move to test-optional would be “increasing pressure on teachers and high school administrators and further tilting an already uneven playing field.”

He also wrote another open letter in May, three days before the decision, strongly encouraging the Board of Regents to continue using the ACT. One week after California’s announcement, Roorda and ACT parted ways.

Interim CEO Godwin said California’s decision is especially puzzling because of the system’s plan to incorporate its own in-state testing by 2025.

“They disregarded the recommendations from their own faculty,” Godwin said. “It was a very surprising decision.”

While the University of California decision will be in effect long after the pandemic, it’s not clear how many schools will stick with test-optional in the post-coronavirus era. Schools such as Columbia University only committed to test-optional for one year.

“That is the million-dollar question, and no pun intended for businesses like the ACT and businesses like mine,” Ingersoll said.

College Board came out in favor of temporary test-optional policies.

“It was like having a drug company say, ‘Hey, don’t use our drug for a year.’ It’s a little too crazy,” Ingersoll said.

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Ingersoll still expects his customers to take the ACT. Many parents, Ingersoll said, will interpret optional as recommended. That gives Godwin some reason for optimism.

“Students will continue to test,” Godwin said. “Students often want to differentiate themselves.”

Test-optional has its problems, too, Ingersoll said. Students have to decide whether it’s in their best interests to submit their ACT score.

Affluent students benefit from advice from guidance counselors or Compass’s services to determine whether to send a score, he said. Students in less financially-resourced districts, Ingersoll said, might not have that same access.

“You’re creating options for students, but also tricky, tactical decisions that they have to make,” Ingersoll said.

The test-optional trend also has resulted in a decrease in SAT tests taken. But industry experts say College Board is more insulated from the test-optional and pandemic challenges than ACT. College Board’s biggest product isn’t the SAT test. It’s the Advanced Placement tests high school students take to get college credit.

ACT looks at targeting younger students

ACT also has sought to diversify its product line beyond the college-readiness exam. Most recently, ACT bought ScootPad, an online learning system, last month.

“Our desire to get more involved in learning is just a recognition that the student takes the ACT in 11th grade,” Godwin said.

“That’s a little late in the learning cycle to get a sense of how you are tracking toward your educational or career goals. So our desire is to get engaged with students at earlier grades.”

While coronavirus has hurt ACT financially, Godwin said that plan still is intact.

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“We remain very committed to our desire to grow our organization, to offer learning solutions as well as tools to help students and institutions navigate through the educational and career planning and workforce planning,” Godwin said.

ACT also has benefited from many state and district-level contracts that make the test mandatory for students.

Ingersoll said that’s been “very, very successful,” but College Board also started doing that and took away business from ACT.

But Ingersoll has not seen the same level of popularity in ACT’s other properties as in College Board’s counterparts.

“ACT’s portfolio is just not as robust as College Board’s,” Ingersoll said. “College Board has all these revenue streams that ACT doesn’t have or doesn’t have as fully. ... (ACT) would not like me saying this, but they’re kind of a one-trick pony.”

Most of ACT’s operating revenue comes from testing, but Godwin said that shouldn’t be a surprise because of how new the learning initiatives are.

The pandemic has given the company insight into where to expand. Online learning is at the top of the list.

“It’s clear it’s not going to replace classroom-based instruction,” Godwin said. “The need for supplemental online learning tools is going to be even more important.”

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Both ACT and College Board are working to develop in-home testing systems with remote proctoring, especially as the risk of a second coronavirus wave hitting in the fall looms.

“We’ve actually been working on remote proctoring for over a year now,” Godwin said. “COVID-19 has sort of accelerated our work in that space.

... But we don’t want to go too fast.”

Ingersoll said at-home testing is “wildly controversial” among the college admissions community. College Board also looked into in-home SAT testing before putting its plans on hold.

Obstacles ACT must tackle first include ensuring proper internet connectivity and quiet spaces for anyone needing an at-home test, Godwin said. ACT for a while dreamed of “being able to take the ACT in your kitchen in your pajamas.”

Even once at-home tests are commonplace, Godwin doesn’t expect it to completely replace the need to wake up early and drive with a No. 2 pencil and approved calculator to a testing location in the near future.

“I don’t anticipate it being a national deployment, all in one swoop,” Godwin said. “It’s something we’re going to ease our way into. ...

“It’s going to be an important tool in our tool kit, but not something that we’re going to lean on through all of our testing any time soon.”

Comments: (319) 398-8394; john.steppe@thegazette.com

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