The ACT: Homeschool Necessity

Earlier in the semester, I said that “beyond the single oddity of the ACT, the standardized test has been unknown to me, and its absence has not hurt me.” I now realize that this is not necessarily true. The ACT has allowed me to pursue my homeschool education. I now know that I had misunderstood the objective of the standardized test. It is not an educational/teaching tool, nor should it be treated as such. It is a measurement tool. In the case of the ACT, it is a gauge of academic ability.

I have had a change of heart. Without a standardized test like the ACT, my self-reported homeschool GPA would have been laughed out of the college admissions office. Instead, I can take a test that measures my academic learning and categorizes me based on a national standard. In essence, my parents were able to pursue a less traditional and more experimental form of education for myself without being penalized for the lack of credibility associated with it.

Furthermore, not all schools are created equal. Some high schools are more academically rigorous than others which explains why a kid with a 4.0 GPA may get an 18 on his/her ACT whereas another kid with a 3.0 GPA at a different high school may get a 25 on the ACT. A standardized test like the ACT accounts for the difference in pedagogical approaches and the intensity of an institution’s curriculum. From this angle, I now see the ACT as an equalizer among schools and educational philosophies.

However, the Act still has its issues. I still question the accuracy of the ACT. In my own experience, the ACT is an easily coachable test. For a test that is supposed to measure one’s entire academic learning, I was able to boost my initial grade of 18 to 28 within a short period after taking an ACT prep course. Furthermore, socioeconomic status also comes into play regarding access to learning resources, such as a prep class or prep materials. Regardless, I have a new appreciation for the ACT. I now applaud the standardized nature of the ACT and the ability the test provides for individuals to venture outside the conventional realm of education.


Coaching from “ACT Prep” and the ACT

While I do not necessarily view the ACT itself as an accurate representation of the knowledge or abilities of all students, I would consider my personal overall experience with the ACT to be a positive one. I was pleased with my ACT score, and (for the most part) finished the test within the time limits provided. I took the ACT three separate times, and my score was nearly the same all three times, so I do feel that the test does have high reliability, which is similar to a point mentioned in our discussions of the SAT.

However, I believe that an individual’s score can change drastically using the right measures, which brings up a potential criticism of the ACT, much like a major criticism present in our discussions about the SAT—the coachability of the test. When I was in high school, students were offered a course called “ACT Prep.” This was not a course that covered content within the subjects in the ACT (English, reading, math, and science) but rather a course meant to teach the best strategies for taking the ACT. This raises the question, “If the test is coachable, then is it actually testing student ability or knowledge?” In my opinion, the answer is no; achieving ‘success’ on the test largely relies on students’ awareness of the appropriate ACT test-taking strategies, compromising the test’s original purpose.

Therefore, in spite of my own positive experiences with the ACT and in spite of the fact that my ACT scores did benefit me as I entered college, I cannot confidently say that my ACT score was used by my high school and the colleges I applied to in an intelligent way. There is so much pressure for modern students to do well on the ACT, and it continues to carry much weight in the college application process, regardless of the criticisms that its coachability brings into question. Because “ACT Prep” was not a required high school course, not all students learned the strategies covered within it and, as a result, many were likely at a disadvantage when it came down to awareness of ‘the best ways’ in which to take the test.

Ultimately, when added to the fact that some very intelligent students are not strong test takers, especially on such a pressured test as the ACT, disadvantages due to coachability of the test lead me to believe that ACT scores are not an accurate representation of student ability.


Life is Tough

Within class, our criticisms of the SAT largely revolve on how a single test can control a student’s future while it simultaneously works in contrast to the very curriculum that we are taught. As we have discussed in our weekly classes, the system of standardizing questions to determine a student’s future has many ways to fail. Much of our current school work directs students to think critically and analyze a problem in order to come up with a cohesive answer based on our experiences and teachings. The ACT attempts to simplify this process through creating a single correct answer that everyone, from all sorts of different backgrounds, should always come to when faced with the same problem. Such a concept seems ridiculous, and oftentimes is. 

I completely understand many of the criticisms we have voiced on the standardized testing system. The tests drift from our core curriculum and there is a significant lack of educational support to prepare students for these tests. Combined with the pressure of how a single test score can impact a student’s future over the next four years, this forms somewhat of a nightmare scenario for anyone worrying about improving. 

Despite the flaws of such a system, this lack of assistance and immense pressure works to help students become motivated and find success through their own means, something they will need for all of their future endeavors. As President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” Life is tough and unfair, and the ACT system represents one of the first major academic introductions to this fact. Students work on their own, using whatever resources and mentors they can to learn how to improve on the ACT. Guidance counselors and teachers, if one can make connections with those who truly care, provide great insight and help in finding ways to study. These individuals can only do so much, however, as helping students with standardized testing is not what they are being paid to do.

Everyone does not get to make a good score. Colleges, no matter how many there are, cannot accept everyone. The ACT, or any standardized test, may not be a good judge of intelligence or character, but it is the accepted standard for colleges and schools. Does a teacher’s rubric for an essay show top scores for the most moral and mature student? No, it grants top scores to the student who can most ably adapt to and meet the teacher’s expectations. 

I would agree with the great emphasis my high school and college admissions placed upon my ACT score. The effort I gave into improving my performance brought about results that I would not have achieved otherwise. The rewards and recognition from my high school and college were acknowledgements of this effort. However, I must recognize that I come from a position of success, through being able to find the right teachers and resources needed to do well. With the scarcity of such things, I am certain that many of my peers worked just as hard as myself and were not fortunate enough to meet the right teachers in the right place. This system has unfair and deeply harmful flaws, but they are flaws that cannot be fixed simply by switching to another system. A standard of success needs to be set, how else can such a massive population of incoming students be judged and selected? Some who deserve success will be left out, and some who do not work will be let in. Overall, the core of students who are let through to their respective colleges with scholarships and awards will be those who worked hard and taught themselves how to succeed. 


Personal Experience with the ACT

At my high school, many of the students would not go out of their way to take tests like the SAT or ACT because they were not required to graduate. So, my school decided to give every student an opportunity to take the ACT for free during one school day. I had already taken the SAT prior to taking the ACT so I assumed I had a fair idea of what to expect.  However, I was not expecting the time to be so much more constricted than the SAT. Therefore, I personally liked the SAT better because it allowed myself more time to think through my answers in the reading section as well as more time to go over my work in the math section. What I did not like about the SAT, such as the restricted range of intelligence testing were some of the same reasons I did not like about the ACT as well.

I do not think my high school and college could apply my test score from the ACT in an intelligent way because I was not able to show my knowledge or understanding to my capability with the timing constraint. Personally, I did not have any experience with taking either standardized test during the pandemic, nor did I hear anything about how they would be administered or modified.


The Problem with the ACT + Standardized Testing During the COVID-19 Pandemic

As I stated in my introductory blog post, I am almost certain my financial life was determined by how many of the final ten questions on each ACT subtest were letter choice C.  This should not be how this process is done. Although I benefited from it, I do not think one’s financial aid in college should be determined by random choices on a multiple-choice test. A person is much more than their score on a standardized test.

Through the 1950s, executives in the Education Testing Service (ETS) strongly believed that no one could practice for the SAT. They felt the test was strictly a measure of a student’s aptitude. Around the same time, Stanley Kaplan graduated from a public college in New York near the top of his class, but he was denied entry to five medical schools because they did not consider his public education as legitimate. Soon, Kaplan quietly began a tutoring service to help students with the SAT. Kaplan actually supported the SAT, feeling it helped underprivileged students like himself gain access to better colleges and careers. Nevertheless, he unknowingly defied the idea that one could not prepare for the SAT when his students scored signficantly better on the SAT after taking his preparatory course. Today, the same thing happens with the ACT, although it is an achievement test. High schools around the United States offer ACT Prep classes that teach students how to take the test. In my opinion, students should not lose instructional time in other areas to learn the tricks of an exam, and the ACT should not be considered with such importance. Students’ future success, again, should only be determined by their true academic ability, which is much more accurately measured by grade point average and success in advanced level classes.

Nevertheless, I am not completely against standardized testing as a whole. In their place, I do think tests are a good way to measure student learning, but they should not bear such incredible weight. If the pressure created by the circumstances surrounding standardized tests was reduced, then I think they would be viewed more positively by people.

I have not personally experienced standardized testing during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, one of my friends was not able to take the ACT she needed to pass in order to gain entry into the College of Education. As a result, she is currently being forced to take another entrance exam. Not offering any alternatives for students to take the ACT during the pandemic does appear to be an issue. Perhaps ACT should consider offering the exam online with a service like ProctorU. From my own personal experience, this has worked well for PRAXIS exams.


The professor’s perspective

So I’m Pearson, I’m the professor responsible for this little enterprise, and I already introduced a bit of my educational background when opening up this very blog If you want to know more, I put a lot of time into telling that story two years ago.

If I carry that educational background story all the way back to my own high school days, it places me at Hilliard Middle/Senior High School, in far northeast Florida (so close to the Florida/Georgia line it makes me disdainful of a certain country group’s name), in the 1989 graduating class of 56 and, as near as I ever figured out, the only person in that graduating class to leave the state to go to college. I had ambitions that were different than my peers, even if I didn’t know how those ambitions would carry me straight back to rural America to work in higher education.

Tests have always fascinated me. When I first read The Big Test, I found Henry Chauncey fascinating me because of his fascination with tests. I trace that fascination to some of the earliest memories I have of school, the special times when the normal flow of classes would break and we’d take the CTBS, the achievement test battery of the California Test Bureau, published by McGraw-Hill. (The CTBS has gone through reforms since, and it’s now known as TerraNova. I suppose I’m still a little bit fascinated.)

This wasn’t a point where test results were used against teachers punitively – or, if it was, I was completely naïve and the teachers never let on. We were all encouraged to do our best, but we didn’t live under a law like No Child Left Behind that we heard about all the time. So I showed up for the tests relaxed and just allowed my fascination with the bubble sheets to take over. And I studied the score sheets when they came home, wondering how many of those 99’s I’d achieved and wondering why so many of my peers looked strange at me for talking about my 99’s, long before I knew what a percentile score was or what it represented about my talents.

Perhaps I was never stressed about tests because I was good at them. [1]

Which is why my first pass at the SAT took me so far aback. I never saw myself as lacking talents for language; I’d received praise for the extent of reading that I did and my fearlessness about going above grade level. I took the SAT in 7th grade as part of Duke University’s Talent Identification Program, and I was told hitting 500 on each section was a sign of academic talent at that age. I got my certificate for hitting 530 on the math section, not that bad for somebody who had only self-taught himself algebra. I got shredded on the verbal section – only 380.

That pattern repeated itself every time I took the PSAT, and the SAT, and the GRE after that – I did better and better on the math section every time, but my verbal scores always lagged behind, despite all the reading I did and all the practice I took at creative writing. That frustrated me, especially when I took my one shot at the ACT and got relatively level scores across the board.

The idea was that the SAT and the aptitude tests like it were supposed to test…well, aptitude. I started to seriously wonder how much my ability to recognize a bunch of high-falutin’ words reflected my innate ability to do college-level and then graduate-level work.

I hold a PhD. I’m in charge of a radically diverse set of classes in what I teach at Tusculum. Apparently I recognized sophisticated words well enough.

I’m handing the words back to my students now. Tusculum, like many schools in Tennessee, puts all the college-board testing scores in terms of the ACT, not the SAT. All of my students in this seminar have had occasion to take the ACT. I wonder about their reaction to how they’ve been tested, and how their test scores were used.

Hopefully that’s enough of a segue.

[1] And, seriously: perhaps I was never stressed about tests because they weren’t as damaging a deal to me as they were to this generation of students. One of the things I’ve been reflecting on as I’ve been through this set of posts from my students is the damage that the tests have done, the joy in learning that the tests have stolen from these students. I’m hoping that there is still a bit that can be done to give some of that joy back – for their sake.


Hello From a Freshman Test Taker

My name is John, and I am currently a freshman student at Tusculum University. My current area of study is undecided with my interest focused on the realms of business, science, and history. 

My hometown is a perfect example of the small-town South, with me being born and raised in Tennessee. My schooling started out as private until 2nd grade, with me then being sent through four different public schools over my next four grades and finally settling into one public school that would see me through a steady eight years of the same friends and teachers.

My education has been largely situated around two things, making teachers happy and learning the rules of academics. This first point has taken a different outlook in the variety of different classes I have had, most significantly within English classes. I learned not to pursue my own writing style, which was inspired by the large amounts of books I constantly read as a child, but more to adapt to what each teacher wanted to see. I consistently found that this would lead to higher scores within my classes, even if myself and those I had proofread my writing had a higher view of my own personal writing rather than my work adjusted to the teacher’s preference. 

A similar fate can be seen within my experience with standardized testing, most prominently the ACT. I took my first ACT as a sophomore, a year earlier than any of my peers. My first score was relatively high compared to many of my fellow students. Over the next two years, I took the ACT six more times, improving by a total of 2 points and never dropping underneath my original score (Ask me in person for the full story on this). In the course of improving my score, I took numerous ACT practice tests, took an ACT prep class, attended school-hosted ACT camps, and worked with a tutor. Out of every single part of this instruction, all of them taught similar things: how to take the ACT. 

This included: different types of questions, how to identify them and how to most quickly and effectively answer them; which questions to skip over; the best ways to skim a passage as fast as possible; which answers to guess if one ran out of time. All of the courses I took taught this to varying degrees, something that I took to heart and dedicated myself to learning. 

While many people seem to view this as a negative factor of testing, I view it in a useful and practical, if not overly humanistic, light.

An example of this can be found within the modern workplace, where not everything is focused just on the skills and knowledge you possess, but on what your boss wants and how capable you are of providing that want. Even if this is outside of your training or knowledge, your job as an employee is to make yourself valuable and figure out how to make your task happen. My studying of how to take the ACT taught me skills that will transition perfectly into my workplace. I was not learning about the knowledge or academics that made up the questions on the ACT, I was learning how to answer them in order to get the highest end-result. 

Due to this line of thinking, I do not view my intensive study of the ACT as wasted or useless. My work earned me results, and those results earned me acceptance and rewards in the scope of college and scholarships. 


The Grand Introduction and a Perspective on Standardized Testing

Hello! My name is Aaron Phillips. I am a Sophomore this year, so I am still going strong for the most part. I have settled with Political Science as my major and am finally starting to get comfortable on where I am at. Most American institutions have some aspect of Political Science and our education system is no exception to that.

I was raised in Greeneville TN, a mostly rural community with a total of five high schools just in case some were unfamiliar to the area. My educational background was that of an extremely competitive mindset starting about Sophomore year of high school with anything less than an A as a failure and something to be immediately improved upon. This was instilled from parents that who pushed me to consider the future more than the present as well as a traditionalist curriculum at my high school which only promoted mindsets like mine. This is especially so with the ACT.

The ACT was my first true experience with standardized testing in my eyes and was the only test at the time that my high school promoted. Every year, when the juniors and seniors took the ACT, the school’s average would be announced as well as annually competing with the other four schools around the county as well as regionally at some points to promote taking the test seriously. Studying for the ACT was an absolute chore for me and along with many other factors, could personally explain my distaste for the national focus onto standardized testing. I understand why these systems are in place, but school should be for education and or preparation for the “real world” with skills that will benefit people for the rest of their lives. Focusing on standardized tests prevents students from actually gaining skills that will help them later in life and to instead focus on a test that not only will prohibit higher institutions but also fails to measure academic predictions as there are many students whose ACT scores do not reflect their GPA.

By the end of the semester, I am hoping to have a better understanding on how the current institutions got into place and have some possible solutions and or explanations for many questions I have regarding the education system.


A Standardized Experience

Hi there! My name is McKenzie Myers, and I am a senior studying psychology and English at Tusculum University. I am also part of the honors program, and my extra curricular activities this year include being an RA, Bonner leader, teacher’s assistant, intern for the campus’s Center for Civic Advancement, and I am also a peer tutor for English, psychology, and study skills. I was born in Augusta, GA, and lived there very briefly, but I was raised in Sevierville, TN, so I consider myself to be Appalachian.

Growing up, I attended a largely Christian-influenced public elementary school before graduating on to a public high school that was hardly influenced by religion: Sevier County High School. Upon graduating high school, I began attending Tusculum University, which makes me the first person in my family to pursue a Bachelor’s degree at a university.

As a person who took part in the U.S. public education system, I have experience in studying for, dreading, and completing standardized tests. My first memory of doing so, I believe, was in the first grade when we were made to do the T-CAPS. What I remember from that first experience is having difficulty filling in the bubble answers without marking the rest of the sheet, having to stay still, keep my eyes on my test, and be quiet for a long time. Of course, those four things are foreign and uncomfortable for young kids, but the behavior was enforced and it was something we had to get used to. Later on in education, it would be clear to me that this form of behavior was the norm for testing. At the time, it was something I hated simply for the fact that I loathed being told what to do, just as I do today. In a way, that shock of behavior control helped set the stage of how I think of the education system now: it is cold, distant, and inconsiderate.


A Homeschooler’s Background, Education, and Introduction to the Standardized Test

My name is Benjamin Isaiah Gall; call me Ben. I am a sophomore student at Tusculum University studying business (with accounting concentration) as my major, and I am working towards two minors in criminal justice and tax.

I was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, and I lived in that state for 16 years out of my 20 years of life. For most of my life, my family has been relatively middle-class. I remember as a kid that we lived in suburbia for a good portion of my young life. Later, we lived with the Grandparents for almost two years during the 2008 recession after my family lost their business. However, my Dad eventually got a stable job, we lived more modestly than before, but we lived comfortably. We moved again after a series of other-at the time-unfortunate events, but we now happily live in Greeneville, Tennessee.

I have never been to public school. My parents resolved (despite economic hardships at times) to homeschool all their children because they were dissatisfied with the Omaha Public School system, which roughly had a 60-70ish% graduation rate at the time, not to mention other issues with the schools. Instead, my mom taught us one on one for our early education until we were able to begin figuring out problems on our own. From then on, we were handed educational material and left mostly to our devices, with the expectation of completing it and honestly recording our grades.

In this way, my education was perhaps peculiar. Beyond general supervision, much of my late-middle school and high school education was independent; I would do my work and finish whenever I completed my work. It was simple, but not always easy. However, as a consequence of this homeschool education, I never had to take any high-stake standardized tests.

My first experience with standardized testing was in a homeschool ACT prep class. I took the test sheets home and performed the test on myself; my first test result was an 18. My most prominent feeling before taking the actual ACT exam was intimidation; I was worried about how a single test could affect my educational career; I went on to score a 28. Afterward, I felt that the test could not truly be reflective of my actual ability. Which was my “real” score the 18 or the 28? How could I suddenly be 56% smarter than when I first took the ACT only weeks ago? The only difference is that I knew how to take the test. Beyond the single oddity of the ACT, the standardized test has been unknown to me, and its absence has not hurt me.