International Counselors react to next year’s ACT changes

By Robbie Jefferiss, University Advisor, United World College of South East Asia

On September 7th 2017, most counselors in Asia didn’t even make it to their desk before they were inundated with forwarded emails or stopped in the hall by panicked students.  “Did you hear the ACT is cancelled? What are we gonna do?”

We cannot help but feel the same exasperation as our students. To study for months, to plan and pay for preparation courses, only to have their exam cancelled days before the event is a punch in the stomach that our students don’t deserve.  Exams of any kind induce fear and anxiety, but especially ones that may have implications for students’ futures; so it’s hard not to empathise when both counselors and test takers are forced to navigate a testing environment that is changing every year.  

We’ve had the old SAT, the new SAT, the growth of the ACT internationally, and then the SAT revising its dates and offerings overseas. We have required tests, suggested tests, optional tests….some universities that want SAT Subject Tests, some that don’t... and the list goes on.   If you’re confused, then imagine how our students feel! One might ask whether it is politics driving international students away from the U.S., or the convoluted application process that seems to disproportionately benefit those lucky enough to have counselors to help make sense of it all?

So what is next?  The ACT, as most of you know, beginning September 2018, will be moving to a computer based model offering students the chance to take the exam during a morning or afternoon session, Fridays and Saturdays.  In some cities, the exam will be offered not just at schools but also at ‘partner’ testing centres that offer computer based exams such as the GRE, ETS / TOEFL and so on. Although the ACT offered schools the opportunity to provide the exam in-house, many could not (or did not want to) meet the requirements needed to run a computer based test. Many do not possess the bank of computers big enough to make it worth the effort given that  many schools have abandoned computer labs for a one-to-one laptop programs. This seems to be a common theme across the International ACAC membership.  Keith Layman at International school of Dusseldorf states, “Once computer-based testing goes ahead, we won't be able to continue as a test centre because we don't have the computers available to offer this option. Our school will not invest in the technology/space for us to remain an ACT test centre given the relatively small number of students we have that take the test. It's just not financially feasible or practical.”   

There are others who have expressed concern about access and how these changes will affect students wanting to take the ACT. Gavin Hornbuckle at the American School of Brasilia says “The ACT's move to a computer based format may mean that our school will not be able to continue as a test center. At the moment, we are the only ACT test center in Brasilia, so this would mean that our students would have to travel to other cities to take the test. We also have a number of students who are not from our school who take the test, so they would be affected as well. The closest test center is a three hour drive, and the closest centers that offer all the testing sessions are in Sao Paulo and Rio. This adds stress and cost to the process of applying to university for our students, which is already stressful as it is. ACT has assured us that they are working on finding a partner in Brazil, but have not given us any information yet. All the uncertainty is making it very difficult to plan for next year and give students the information they need.”   The question of access to testing facilities is one that is yet to be answered.  In many international markets, the ACT has pledged to meet the regional demand for students wanting to take the test through their ‘partner’ organizations. So even if every school in town is not offering the test, there will be enough testing seats via these partners.  

This becomes more complex in certain parts of the world. For example, test centers in South East Asia are often filled with test takers from China who fly in for the weekend to take the test. How this will all play out next year, is yet to be seen. Perhaps demand will be met in all regions eliminating the need to travel. Responding to the problem of access, Ed Colby, ACT’s Senior Director for Media & Public Relations  said, “ACT continues to work with our school partners to ensure access. We also work with many government-related education agencies (e.g. Fulbright, Korean-American Educational Commission, Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority, Institute of Career Development, EducationUSA, among others) to provide coverage outside of just schools. In moving to the computer-based model, there will also be commercial test centers available. Our work continues with searching for reputable and tested partners that will help us expand global coverage, maintain a fair testing environment for all, and keep local, on-the-ground needs in high visibility.”  ACT has listed some of their partners on their website (see this link) and additional partners will be listed on their website via press releases.

Some observers would say computer based testing has been a long time coming, and the ACT is taking the steps needed to make that move, first with the international audience, and perhaps later domestically in the U.S. market (beyond the computer based ACT tests administered for state level testing).  Others have concerns that these new changes have been rushed through by the ACT in response to this year’s security breach. Jeremy Craig of Testtakers Singapore, a private tutoring firm with years of testing expertise, has his own doubts, “I have grave concerns about the implementation of the of a computer based test format for the ACT internationally.  These are grounded on the spotty performance on the part of ACT in ensuring test integrity in Asia in the past several years, and the lack of clear guidance from the ACT on the specifics of the new test format and anticipated venues.  There is not much economic incentive for a private company to become a test center and all present ACT test centers in Singapore will not be continuing with the advent of the CBT next school year. Test integrity on test day is a major concern as hacking into the CBT is certainly something that nefarious test prep companies will be working on.  As such, we are strongly nudging people towards the SAT in the near term as that is a known quantity and College Board have done a (marginally) better job in ensuring sufficient supply and maintaining test integrity”  

When questioned about security, Mr. Colby from ACT states,  “ACT takes test security very seriously. We are committed to providing a fair and level playing field to all students who take the ACT and to ensuring that no students have an unfair advantage over others. We have many different layers of test security procedures in place to detect and deter efforts to game the system.”  

We can all hope for a fair platform for students to show their abilities, and perhaps moving to a computer based format will eliminate some of the issues whereby versions of tests are leaked in earlier time zones, along with other problems faced by the SAT and ACT in recent years. Undoubtedly, there will be monitors at ACT looking for breaches or inconsistencies.

On a positive note, there are likely some advantages to the new computer based testing model. Depending on their location, students could possibly have 24 testing opportunities available to them (morning or afternoon, over 12 testing days).   Although some counselors are not happy about the likelihood of requested school absences to take a Friday ACT, it does provide a broader range of testing dates. Another advantage is the turn around time of score reporting. ACT states that students should expect to get their scores within two or three days of testing, with their writing scores to come in two weeks. Another advantage? Well...a lot of counselors at schools no longer offering the test will have more free Saturday mornings and one less thing on their to do list!  

As the testing landscape shifts once again, it will be interesting to see where this new development moves the needle on standardised testing. Will the ease of test taking increase the number of test sittings for those taking the ACT? Will international students flock to a ‘known’ entity in the SAT?  Or will this latest change be the catalyst for more universities to reevaluate a move towards a test optional policy? Let’s wait and see.

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