Does the ACT Matter?

As students take high stakes tests under great stress, it is worth asking whether such tests are really worthy of the attention they garner.

By Sage Preble

A line that extends a solid half of a block out of the building greets me and the many other ACT goers, so this year’s ACT is quickly shaping up to be as exhausting and mind-numbingly awful as the last one. I haven’t been holding out much faith for that aspect of this rigorous test to have changed, but I do hope that the outdoor temperatures have cooled enough that the non-air-conditioned rooms we are crammed into by the dozen won’t immediately feel like an oven, as they had last spring.

Test proctors, looking just as bored out of their minds as one would expect, herd us into the correct rooms, eyeing our ID’s and test tickets twice over. They stalk between our chairs as we get seated, in part to intimidate, in part to check for test contraband (I clutch my TI-84 close, scared for its safety, though it is a permitted calculator). The lucky folks who somehow managed to get a room with their friends flock together to warm themselves against the icy stares of the proctors. Nervous laughter rumbles around the room in uneven waves, dying as quickly as it arises.

For some, this is a return trip. Unprepared and a bit dazzled by all the red tape before, during, and after the test, many return to these halls in search of the brilliant scores they yearned for the first time. Though I hadn’t scored poorly on my first ACT, I decided I could do better, and with the masochistic gall to rival that of a BDSM practitioner, I signed myself up on the last day before the late penalty applied.

Somehow , I had forgotten just how god-awful this whole thing was (though I expect a combination of witchcraft, brainwashing, and good old-fashioned trauma-induced memory repression had a strong role). Is this really what colleges want? A score from a test where the students are treated like cattle on slaughter day? Is this really the environment we’re expected to achieve our best scores in—uncomfortable, crowded, anxiety-producing cesspits?

The students who do score well on these tests don’t necessarily do well because of their creativity, their unique answers.

Somewhere along the way, it seems to me that we befuddled intellect—creative problem solving and unique solutions—with a bullheaded ability to press on in what is arguably the worst of situations to excel in. The students who do score well on these tests don’t necessarily do well because of their creativity, their unique answers. They do well because they have been trained to answer standardized questions that have one real solution, questions that aren’t up for interpretation at all, questions that could be graded by a machine. They excel not necessarily in their intellect, but in the mindless drugging up of jaded grammar rules and wearied algorithms.

This test is not the pinnacle of human intellect. Perhaps it is not meant to be, but with so much hinging on a student’s success on the ACT—being accepted into colleges first and foremost—one would think that the test would attempt to be more human, or at the very least, less sterile.

The test booklets hit our desks, and in tones fitting of a librarian, the test proctors read out the test rules. I look at the first page. It’s the English section, the one in which I perform best. The questions, though, nestled under the annotated literature like lumps of coal under the Christmas tree of a naughty child, ask which option is best to replace the underlined word. Three of the answers fit awkwardly in the sentence, the fourth falling into place like the final piece in a well-played Tetris game. This isn’t English at the college level, this is basic grammar, taught to us all in elementary. Am I being tested on my readiness for college English, or on the accuracy of my recollection?

About four hours later I walk into the sunshine, blinking away the soreness in my eyes. I climb into my car and sit for a moment, staring off into the grey of my dashboard. I ponder how I spent over $100 just to sit in a room like that for hours, for strangers to grade me, to have my scores tossed to me carelessly through the computer screen in a few months. I think about all the prep gear I purchased, and what I would have done if I couldn’t afford it.

Out here, none of the stuff in that test matters.

The sun is winking at me from behind a tree, the blue of the sky cut into ribbons by the branches. Out here, none of the stuff in that test matters. I can’t use the Pythagorean Theorem to choose the route home that won’t have that reckless driver on it, and it can’t help me if I do get in a wreck. The Boolean variable won’t assist me if I get lost on my way home. I do those things, yet am I tested on my ability to keep myself safe? No, I am not. Are basic skills like these not considered a form of intelligence worth having anymore?

With a pounding head and stiffened hands, I pull out of the parking lot, ready to leave behind the test that helps determine my future. The street is safe, and my route home is clear in my mind. Isn’t that what matters?

Sage Preble is the Editor-in-Chief of the Pine Needle.