The Unpredictability of ACT Testing During the Pandemic

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Students waiting to take the ACT exam outside Frederick Douglass III Academy on February 6th, 2021.

Catherine Auerbach

For most high school students, junior year is by far the most difficult year of high school, with harder classes, standardized tests like the SAT and ACT, and college applications just around the corner. With the added stress and complications of a pandemic, the struggles of juniors across the globe are intensified. We now have to deal with all the grueling aspects of junior year, without any of the fun or socialization that makes it all worth it. 

 

However, students aren’t the only ones struggling to adapt to the pandemic. ACT, Inc., the organization that administers the ACT, is struggling — and at times, failing immensely — to execute on its promises to students. 

 

Last Saturday, February 6th, many WESS students (myself included) were scheduled to take the ACT at Frederick Douglass Academy III in the Bronx. I woke up at 6:20 AM, grabbed my admission ticket, photo ID and TI-84 graphing calculator, and hopped in the car to go take the exam for a second time. Upon arriving, I saw a large crowd of students already forming outside the large red doors of the public school. Finding a group of my close friends, we joked about how I was the only one wearing jeans in the whole crowd, and laughed at the hastily-taken pictures of us on our admission tickets. I wasn’t feeling too nervous; I had already taken the ACT in December and was fine with my score, so if I ended up bombing this test, it wouldn’t really matter. What could go wrong? 

 

Most of us had gotten there at least 20 minutes early, and were anxious for the school to let us in the building, given that the temperature outside was in the mid-30s, and many students hadn’t worn more than a sweatshirt. The clock was inching closer to 8:00 and there had been no word from anyone in the building. I wondered if there was some sort of holdup or delay in setting up the classrooms for testing. As time continued to pass, from 8:00 to 8:05 to 8:20, still with no word from any school staff, the few parents that had stayed to wait with their kids began to call the school and the ACT administration, asking what was happening and why we weren’t being let in the building. Another twenty minutes of confusion passed, until a big silver minivan pulled up onto the sidewalk and parked in front of the building. Students immediately began crowding around the car: What was going on? Were we still taking our test? Why were we being kept outside? 

 

Out of the car stepped one of the school’s custodians, who, upon hearing the student’s concerns, promised he’d call the school’s principal. He disappeared behind the big red doors, coming back out a few minutes later to announce that the principal “had no idea” there was supposed to be a test administered at the school that day. Outraged, many students began booing, and began to call their parents to come pick them up. 

 

By this point, my dad had already driven all the way home, but I was able to catch a ride with a friend. While a minor disappointment (and perhaps a significant inconvenience) for me, this test cancellation with no explanation was incredibly frustrating for many students, who had been studying for months on end to succeed on this college entrance test. Take Ali Letchford, a junior at WESS whose first ACT registration for December 12th was also cancelled, only to find herself let down again in February. 

 

I received an email from the ACT later that Saturday, where they informed me that “the ACT test you are scheduled to take on Saturday, February 6, 2021 must be rescheduled” — something that would have been good to know maybe a few weeks earlier. Apparently, the test had already been cancelled at that location, but the ACT had failed to inform students of the cancellation. 

 

The ACT was then rescheduled for all affected students Saturday, February 13th, in Brooklyn. 

 

With many universities changing their policy to test-optional as the pandemic drags on and ACT testing becoming increasingly unreliable, it’s a possibility that many students may choose to not take the test at all. Ivy Leagues like UPenn, Brown and Columbia have just extended their test-optional policy, giving an advantage to students whose test-taking abilities might otherwise disadvantage their application. 

 

ACT/SAT testing does still provide a useful means of academic comparison for colleges during the admissions process, and students who score well on the SAT this year have a chance at qualifying for the National Merit Scholarship. But as fewer and fewer students opt to take the ACT (or simply don’t have access to safe testing facilities), there’s some hope that the ACT and the SAT could become permanently optional on college applications. This move would help students who can’t afford the expensive tutoring often needed to score well. 

 

At least for the moment, while the ACT remains a crucial part of one’s college application, ACT Inc. has a responsibility to adequately inform students about their test-taking process, and not leave them clueless and stranded out in the cold. To students, while test-optional schools are a great safety net, make sure to sign up for multiple test dates just in case of a cancellation. 

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