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August 17, 2005

According to the ACT, the ACT is awesome!

In today's New York Times, reporter Tamar Lewin writes that many high-school graduates do not have the skills necessary to succeed in college. How does Lewin know? The ACT said so, and the ACT is the new arbiter of all things educational.

The six-man group that runs media relations from ACT's offices in Iowa City deserves some sort of medal for its achievements. Without any assistance from outside public-relations firms, the group has helped the ACT, formerly known as the American College Testing and also as the SAT's neglected stepbrother, to a bonanza of free publicity. Media-relations director Ken Gullette tells Gelf that in this year alone, the ACT has been the subject of articles in newspapers with a combined circulation of over 700 million, up from just over 100 million six years ago. In her article, Lewin even used a cheesy quote that appeared in the group's press release. ("It's wonderful that more and more students who might not have considered college several years ago are now making plans for education beyond high school," said Richard L. Ferguson, ACT's chief executive officer.)

One of the major reasons for the ACT's publicity explosion is that over the past few years, the ACT has developed College Readiness Benchmarks, which are scores on the various parts of the test (English, math, science, and reading comprehension) that correlate with what they term "success" (a C or higher) in college-level classes. For example, 70% of students who got a 22 or better on the math section last year went on to get C's or better in college, so the ACT decided that this was the benchmark. Since only 41% of students cleared the benchmark in math (along with 51% in reading and 26% in science), the New York Times felt justified in printing the following lead to its article:

Only about half of this year's high school graduates have the reading skills they need to succeed in college, and even fewer are prepared for college-level science and math courses, according to a yearly report from ACT, which produces one of the nation's leading college admissions tests.

Basically, this is a roundabout way of saying that a lot of kids get D's and F's in college—not exactly breaking news. But the specifics the ACT studies provide make articles about this phenomenon look more relevant, even if the stats themselves don't have any real meaning. (Wait—70% of the 41% of kids who got a 22 or higher on the math section got all C's or better in college? Huh?) They also don't provide any useful way of dealing with the problem. Despite its best efforts to appear on the cusp of some national trend, the prevailing message of Lewin's article is that there is a correlation between ACT scores and college grades, which is exactly what the ACT wants you to think. For his part, Gullette admits there are other factors that may correlate better with college performance (like high-school grades), but stands by the benchmarks.

"For whatever reason," Gullette tells Gelf, "the College Readiness Benchmarks are what reporters pick up on. They were big last year, and they're big again this year."

They were also big the year before, when the same Tamar Lewin wrote this for the Times:

Fewer than half of graduating high school seniors who took the 2003 ACT college entrance exams were adequately prepared for college-level algebra, and only about a quarter were prepared for college biology, according to the ACT results released yesterday.

Lewin must have missed the 2004 press release, but the AP filled in, with this lead:

Fewer than one in four high school graduates who took the ACT test have taken the coursework necessary to succeed in college, according to a report released Thursday by the not-for-profit company that administers the college entrance exam.

Every year, kids suck at the ACT and go on to suck at college. Are the two related? Perhaps. The biggest lesson, though, is that if you want to get a load of publicity for your organization, tie it to a nebulous national trend and get a media-relations team like the one toiling away in Iowa City.

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