Image © Antonioguillem, Adobe Stock
The notion that the ACT is a curriculum-based test is one of those hoary old ideas that, like so-called “obscure words” or the “guessing penalty” on the old SAT, has apparently now achieved zombie status. In fact, I confess I thought it had more or less disappeared into the ether until I encountered it on Instagram (yes, Instagram!) of all places. And by a test-prep company no less. That made me realize it wasn’t nearly as gone as I thought. Hence this post.
The confusion stems in large part from the fact that way back, the ACT was originally designed to be aligned with a generic high school curriculum—“originally” meaning “in the 1950s.” At that point, the exam did actually test some pieces of specific factual knowledge. In the late 1980s, however, the original Social Studies and Science tests were replaced with the current Reading and Scientific Reasoning tests and, presumably recognizing that students’ exposure to specific topics varied dramatically as well as wanting to compete with the SAT, the ACT moved towards testing more general reasoning abilities.
By that point, however, the ACT had already been around for three decades and was firmly established in people’s minds as a “curriculum-based test,” just as the SAT continued to be viewed as an “aptitude” test long after the College Board ceased to make any such claims. (Indeed, I’ve recently come across college-counseling handbooks put out by highly-ranked public schools in which the SAT is referred to as the “Scholastic Aptitude Test,” even though that moniker was officially dropped more than two decades ago. Old habits die hard.)
So while the ACT does still have a more generally straightforward style than the SAT, that should not be confused with the actual content of the test. Asking questions in a direct way is not the same as testing specific factual knowledge.
As is true for the SAT, all of the content on the ACT is tested in terms of application. For example, in the English section, students must be able to recognize things like dangling modifiers and non-essential clauses, but they do not need to know the definitions of these terms per se. Likewise, the Prose-fiction passage on the Reading test does not require any knowledge of literature, nor does the Science-themed passage require any particular knowledge of the various branches of science.
Even the Science test does not cover specific concepts from biology, chemistry, etc., although some familiarity with scientific terminology is certainly helpful. Rather, it is essentially a data analysis section that focuses on test-takers’ ability to interpret graphs and charts. But granted, the fact that that portion of the test is labeled “SCIENCE TEST”— not “Scientific Reasoning” or “Data Analysis” — is reasonable grounds for confusion. (Actually, now that I think about it, calling a test one thing and then not really testing it is frankly a little, well, weird and unnecessarily misleading.)
What I really find concerning, though, is that any company or individual responsible for preparing students for the ACT, or for helping them apply to college, could still make these types of claims about the test. After all, one only need place an ACT English section side-by-side with a redesigned SAT Writing section to see that they are nearly identical. It really makes me wonder how many students are receiving faulty information about the exams, and from people who should really know better.
Oh, and while we’re at it, another ACT myth, namely that selective (east-coast) colleges prefer the SAT. Particularly for parents who applied to college in the 1980s, when there still was an SAT bias, this is a hard to one to shake. But please believe when I say that all — and I do mean all — colleges now treat the SAT and the ACT completely equally. Okay? Every Ivy, Stanford, MIT, Caltech… There is no preference whatsoever.
I’m insisting on this because I suspect when some of these parents hear about the persistent problems plaguing the College Board, they may hesitate to encourage their children to switch to the ACT because they believe that doing so will place them at a disadvantage, but this is simply not true. Students should take the test they are most likely to do well on, with the least amount of stress.
Not everything in the college process can be controlled, but some things can be, and fortunately this is one of them.