ACT President Jon Erickson, who has spent three decades in the testing field, is retiring on Sept. 1 after four years in his position. Erickson, 61, answered questions from The Washington Post as the nonprofit organization based in Iowa prepared to release its annual report this week on college admission testing. The ACT is the most widely used admission test in the nation, although the College Board’s SAT draws more students in many states.
Q: Why did you make college testing your career?
Interestingly, it wasn’t my plan really. I was a high school teacher and later a university administrator and I used tests and the resulting information to counsel students and also to help plan educational programs. I was never a huge testing proponent, but I always saw their value when used in the proper way. My questioning surrounding the good and proper role of testing in career planning, academic advising, admission decisions, student retention and equal opportunity led me to investigate and later want to understand, influence and change the testing industry from within.
Q: How has the field changed since you began?
There is more creative assessment being done and researched now from unique item types to computer adaptive delivery to gaming. At the same time, testing certainly seems to have reached a high tide. Accountability has used testing as its bell cow, and that has made it more of the focal point of outcomes. Many have used test results in ways they were never designed to do. Transparency behind tests is much clearer now, but there is a fixation or at least a perception that test scores are the most important measure. The assessment models that hold the most promise are those that look at the whole person -and not solely at academic achievement.
Q: What changes do you see coming in the next few years?
The move to computerized delivery will pick up speed. That should make results more immediate and allow for more personalization in reporting as well. New ways in which test questions can be created as well as delivered and scored will also change the industry. The most dramatic impact will be on formative assessment, classroom-based measures that will be teacher friendly and help guide individualized instruction in K-12, college or in the workplace, or in on-line classes or training programs. Assessments will be delivered at any time in any location with resulting information that will help both the examinee and also the parent, guardian or student advocate.
Q: Some students ace their tests. But for many it’s stressful and traumatic. Some students don’t view themselves as ‘good at tests.’ What do you tell them?
Tests are stressful when we place too much emphasis on their importance. Relax. Tests don’t define us, nor do they determine our future. They inform our decisions and reflect achievement to date. Results can change as you learn more. You hold the power, not the tests; you control your learning. Demystify the test, know its purpose, what it covers, what it looks like, how it’s actually used (its relative importance) and then plan how best to tackle it. If you have done well in class, you almost always will do well on the test. Don’t talk yourself into being a “poor test taker.” Almost everyone says that. Take it seriously, but even if you think your test results don’t reflect your grades and courses, your classroom achievements and dedication will overcome a poor test showing.
Q: Do we really need college testing? Isn’t it biased? Some families can afford to hire test-prep tutors. Many can’t.
I think there is still an important role for college testing. There is great variability in high school transcripts and grades. Test scores are at least objective with known reliability and validity. Other measures are more subjective. At ACT we take extreme steps to remove all elements of bias from any test, so that is not an issue. And I see little proof that expensive test prep programs significantly affect ACT scores. That said, the bigger issue is an equity issue: Higher income families are investing more money (and time) in their child’s education than lower income groups can, especially at early ages. This is an issue our country needs to seriously address. The opportunity gap is significant and it isn’t narrowing. Eliminating testing won’t solve the problem; it will just prevent us from seeing it
Q: George Washington University just announced that it won’t require the SAT or ACT for admissions. Does it concern you that some prominent universities are saying tests aren’t necessary? Will more follow?
I have witnessed test use at colleges for many years, and it has gone in cycles. The truth of the matter is that most all colleges have always had the option of waiving or ignoring test results for certain students. I respect their choice and their local policies. Every college is unique in some way. I want to believe these statements or decisions are always made with the best interests of the student in mind and with some local supporting research in place. In fact it should be research driven and revisited every few years to make sure it is having the intended impact. Let’s not forget that a segment of students also get in because of their test scores. The most important focus should be on student success, not application or enrollment. Ignoring additional information when making admission, placement or advising decisions is hard for me to understand.
Q: Tell us what you think of the Common Core state standards for K-12 public schools and of the tests that accompany them.
I am very pleased about the focus on ALL students being college and career ready. I am for fewer, higher, and clearer standards. And ACT’s college readiness standards and associated research certainly helped inform the Common Core. Aligning assessments to college readiness standards is logical and right. That said, standards and assessments alone won’t change student learning, nor will well-intended policy. That happens in the classroom with great teachers, relevant and engaging curriculum, motivated students and involved and supportive parents and community members.
Q: Why has the Common Core become so controversial?
It’s certainly become a political hot button, mostly because of the mistaken perception that it was federally mandated and takes away local control. The federal and private incentives around adoption and funds provided to the consortiums contributed to that impression.
Q: Standardized testing used to be seen as an equalizer. Now, in many places, it’s not. Why?
Interestingly, the equal opportunity advocacy groups believe it is a valuable equalizer and are vocal about that. It calls clear attention to the gaps and has forced a focus on solutions.
Q: The ACT has gained a lot of market share through contracts with states. How and why did this happen?
Actually the ACT has primarily grown because areas of the country that previously were unaware of the ACT now prefer it. The increasing statewide use of the ACT has been a smaller part of ACT’s growth, though no less important. States came to us asking to use (and fund) the ACT with all students in order to improve college attendance rates (especially with underserved audiences), increase the focus on college readiness skills, and align their K-12 and post-secondary systems. They also looked for a measure that had real value to students and parents. On all accounts, states have had a lot of success with this approach, as demonstrated by the nearly 20 states that now use the ACT in this manner.
Q: Michigan recently decided to drop its ACT contract, switching to SAT. Does this worry you?
I always am disappointed when we lose a good partner. It’s the nature of the business. We had great success together with Michigan and laid the groundwork for many other states. We still are working with Michigan on their career readiness initiative. I am very proud of our work there, and I wish Michigan well. I do hope we will work together again in the future. It often works out that way.
Q: Why should states spend public money on one test (ACT) but not another (SAT)? Why should they spend public money at all on any college testing?
It depends on what the state environment is. If they are inclined to want only one partner to manage and their data to be unblended, then one test makes sense. If they want to give schools and students more choice, and the state can manage the associated complexities, then both tests makes sense. Bottom line with the ACT: States have found that it has been money well spent, with a positive return on investment in terms of student participation, parental and taxpayer support, standards alignment, higher education engagement, and increased student success rates.
Q: The ACT offers an optional 30-minute essay. The SAT’s essay will soon become optional as well – a 50-minute exercise. But aren’t there far better ways to assess writing skill than a timed essay?
Sure, a timed essay is a proxy measure. And one, I would add, that we always said would have limited value to many higher education institutions. That’s why we went optional at the offset. There are similar problems with college application essays. The best writing is done within a course and ideally should be reflected in course grades
Q: About the SAT–What do you think of the revisions that are scheduled to launch in March?
This may be hard to believe, but I have not paid very close attention to the SAT. My focus has always been on the needs of students, parents, schools and colleges and how the ACT can continue to innovate. The changes to the SAT appear to largely be ideas that ACT has previously implemented and been using for many years.
Q: Are there revisions coming for the ACT as well?
Yes, but not radical changes to the test itself. They are changes to help make the test more valuable and useful to users. I am excited that this year we have added new score reporting categories that will continue to better inform educators and students in areas like STEM, reading complexity, and career readiness. And, this past year, we were the first to offer a college admission test on computer. I believe more exciting innovations will follow.
Q: If you could magically change one thing about the college admissions process, what would it be?
More transparency! Too often the admissions process is done behind closed doors. It may be part science and part art, but it shouldn’t be a magician’s secret. That alone has added greatly to student and parent anxiety, as well as to the increase in college application advisers for the wealthy. Again, removing tests from the equation won’t solve this.
Q: If you could magically change one federal education policy, what would it be?
Wow, what should I pull out of the treasure box? I would find more balance with the states in terms of standards, assessment and accountability requirements and options, with less federal regulation or oversight. I would also find a reasonable balance in student data privacy as well as teacher evaluation. I fear both may be going overboard.
Q: What do you plan to do next?
First, I plan to go fishing. After I relax a bit, I will likely re-engage in education in some way, locally, nationally, and maybe internationally. I plan to volunteer. I want to pay it forward. And teach again. I miss the direct contact with students. And I really hope I don’t become a consultant. We have enough of those.