The Philosophy of the ACT

“I just don’t understand WHY we’re forced to sit through such a challenging test! Can’t the colleges just look at our school grades and reports?”

This was exclaimed just last week by an Essai student in a fit of despair brought on by a particularly fiendish math problem, and it’s a question which is often voiced by teachers and students alike. In order to find some sort of answer, we must delve deep into the ACT’s ‘technical manual’, which contains a detailed justification for the structure and content of the test.

College faculty members were asked which knowledge and skill areas were most important to success in college courses, and also asked to identify which of these areas students should have mastered before embarking on their college careers. The content of the test is the product of this consultation, and the four subjects – English, Math, Reading and Science (which is predominantly data interpretation and analysis) – were chosen because a grasp of their fundamentals is essential for any college-bound student, regardless of their intended programme of study.

The manual states that the underlying principle behind the ACT test is “the belief that student’s preparation for college and the workplace is best assessed by measuring, as directly as possible, the academic skills that they will need to perform college-level work”.

The paper itself is purported to “measure what students are able to do with what they have learned in school”. This means that rather than assessing abstract qualities such as ‘intelligence’ or testing students on their memorisation of specific syllabus content, it aims to facilitate the integration of knowledge and skills from major curriculum areas with information provided in the test. Thus, the focus is placed on determining whether a student is capable of solving problems, grasping implied meanings, draw inferences, and evaluate ideas.

This well-founded rational should certainly provide reassurance to ACT candidates – especially the emphasis that high test scores are not simply a matter of innate ability, but reflect a level of achievement earned through dedicated practice and consistent effort.