September 25, 2017

Minnesota, It’s Time to Break Up With the ACT

By Josh Crosson

I realize what I’m about to say is unpopular. Minnesota prides itself on how many high schoolers take—and do well on—the ACT, the region’s favorite college entry test. Schools, parents, and educators all but fire off confetti every time national ACT results come out (as they did last month), and Minnesotans can recite their ACT scores as easily as they can name their favorite State Fair food (corn on the cob and 31).

But here’s the thing you might not want to hear: The ACT is not a good measure of college readiness, and actually serves as a barrier to college entry—for all students, but especially those most underserved.


But doesn’t the ACT predict college readiness?

While the ACT is designed to assess whether students are ready for college and career, in the end, what’s marketed as success on the ACT is actually a pretty poor barometer of whether a student will do well in college: According to the ACT, students who score as “college ready” actually have a 25 percent chance of receiving a D or F in the corresponding college course. In other words, one in four students who “pass” the ACT is not ready for—or at least not ready to do very well in—college.

Given that Minnesota’s average college-bound high school graduate has a 22 percent chance of needing some extra help to be fully prepared for college, knowing how students are doing on the ACT really does not add much value.


But doesn’t the ACT increase access to college? The short answer is no.

In fact, the ACT has actually become a barrier to college for students, especially for students of color. Consider the newly released data on ACT results in Minnesota:

  • Just 21% of Black students are deemed ready for college-level reading, compared to 31% of Black students deemed proficient based on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA).
  • 29% of Latino/Hispanic students are considered college-ready in reading, compared to 37% based on the MCAs.
  • Only 12% of American Indian/Alaskan Native students are deemed ready for college-level science, compared to 29.5% based on the MCAs.
% of ACT Test-Takers Meeting College-Ready Benchmarks, 2017​


% of High School Students Proficient on the MCA, 2017

On our standards-based MCAs, nearly all students, especially students of color, are deemed proficient at much higher rates than the ACT data would suggest. Furthermore, students deemed proficient on the MCA have a remediation rate between 7 and 19 percent, depending on the subject.

What this means is that, with the ACT, we’re essentially telling students—mostly students of color—that they are not “college material” despite standards-aligned factors showing otherwise. And we’re basing this on a test that, by the ACT’s own data and a growing body of research, doesn’t actually measure college readiness all that well.

Don’t get me wrong: Our schools are still not doing enough to prepare students, especially students of color, for success in higher education. But, to the very detriment of our most underserved youth, Minnesota schools are actually doing a better job than ACT scores suggest.


Despite its vast flaws, many institutions of higher education still use the ACT for college entry. That’s why I’m not suggesting we limit students’ access to the ACT. Instead, I’m suggesting that we collectively acknowledge that, when it comes to measuring college readiness and increasing access to higher education, the ACT isn’t working. We should either have it better align with K-12 and/or college standards, or advocate for Minnesota colleges and universities to move away from the ACT, as schools in other states are already doing, and toward other, more predictive variables like MCA scores (which students can now submit to Minnesota state colleges and universities to demonstrate college readiness and avoid remedial coursework).

We must make the often-uncomfortable changes needed to guarantee all students, especially our most underserved, succeed in college, which means tearing down archaic and oppressive vestiges like the ACT. Until we measure college readiness more accurately and equitably in a way that inspires students to attend and succeed in college, let’s at the very least cancel the ACT confetti parades.

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