College & Workforce Readiness

New Study Questions Validity of Two Parts of ACT

By Caralee J. Adams — June 21, 2011 2 min read
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The validity of the ACT in predicting college success has come under scrutiny in a new paper out by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The study, Improving College Performance and Retention the Easy Way: Unpacking the ACT Exam, by Eric P. Bettinger, Brent J. Evans, and Devin G. Pope, suggests that two of the four sub tests of the ACT, English and mathematics, are highly predictive of positive college outcomes, while the other two, science and reading, provide little or no additional predictive power.

Officials at the ACT, based in Iowa City, Iowa, maintain the test is supported by decades of research.

ACT, a term that originally stood for American College Testing, is a standardized U.S. college admissions exam. It has been growing in popularity, pulling even with its main competitor, the SAT (formerly, Scholastic Aptitude Test), in total number of student test takers.

The NBER paper authors contend that the predictive validity of standardized tests is relevant to policy and social welfare since undermatching can place good students in support systems which will not help them continue and graduate from college. Schools could weight ACT subject scores differently based on their own goals and student population, but the paper suggests that most admission officers are simply unaware of the difference in predictive validity across the tests and have limited time.

An email statement from Jon Erickson, interim president of the ACT’s education division, says the ACT is an achievement-based test that is used for multiple goals and purposes beyond just admissions or predicting overall student success, such as college GPA or retention.

He says that all four subject areas are important in college and the composite score represents the best overall college readiness predictor. While students typically tend to score in a similar pattern across the tests, that is not always the case and the differences should be noted by college advisors and admissions officers in evaluation and intervention decisions, the ACT statement says.

The study’s results confirm what Erickson says the ACT has known for a long time: English and math skills are strong predictors of college success. “But as we look at different indicators of success, many are contributors and all provide valuable information that can help students and colleges in making important decisions about students educational futures,” Erickson says. “Having as complete a picture as possible of a student is always more reliable and preferable.”

The ACT encourages individual institutions or systems to investigate the predictive models that work best for them and supports predictive validity research.

A version of this news article first appeared in the College Bound blog.