Many Republicans are going to be touting the benefits of competition in education in this next election cycle. The R’s tend to prefer free market solutions to problems. Of course the free market also likes to create problems so they can sell you a solution. We see this oh so clearly in education as politicians and bureaucrats push decontextualized statistics and scores at us to create the perception of a crisis in education. The opportunity of a crisis allows businesses to create new and better products to avert the crisis and business in any market is good for the economy. So the theory goes. Competition among businesses is good for the consumer, but is competition among education suppliers really good for the consumer? Let’s look at where there already is competition in education. Consider the  example of higher education and the screening exams like SAT and ACT.

Both the SAT and ACT are private products. Their raison d’etre is to help colleges solve the problem of large numbers of applicants whose GPA’s alone may not provide enough information to sort out the best applicants from the mediocre ones.  Like Burger King and McDonalds, these two companies are locked in eternal competition for the top spot of the go to test for colleges and universities. And like the two burger competitors the most practical way to compete is with menu changes.  They’re still going to supply the burger and fries of scores on math and English, but will the burger have bacon on top? Will you get a soda, shake or mochaccino with that? What other sides can a college along with the basic scores?

Nancy Griesemer wrote in the Examiner about changes ACT is making to their menu. The ACT has added a series of 11 sub- or “domain” scores (rated 2-12) that are intended to provide insight into the student’s aptitude for 21st century skills like rhetorical skills and ideas and analysis. They also plan to generate two new hybrid scores in English Language Arts (ELA) and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), based on various combinations of English, Reading and Writing or Science and Math scores.

These special toppings provide additional information to colleges for their application screening process. But ACT is going even farther now. For 450 colleges that participate in their ACT Research Services,  ACT will also let colleges know which students have an “Overall GPA Chances of Success” in specific majors such as engineering, traditional liberal art majors, education and  business administration.  They can also dig down to specific courses and give a ranking for “Specific Course Chances of Success” in subjects like freshman English, college algebra, history, chemistry, psychology etc. Chances of success is defined as likely to receive a “B” or better in these courses. Parents need to know that these scores are NOT SHOWN on the ACT report provided to students and families. ACT provides this detail to its other customers without your knowledge.

You may ask, “how is ACT able to provide this level of detail?” They get data from their tests, but also from two additional sources.

  • Student-reported information gathered as part of the registration process, including high school GPA and specific course grades earned
  • Data provided by participating colleges/universities about the previous year’s enrolled students including the college grade average and course grades achieved by first-year students.

Remember that FERPA form they casually asked students to sign when they entered college? That allows the college to send your individual child’s courses and grades to ACT to improve their product. They also use the information your child provided them to help them “match your child to the appropriate college or university” for their own product development, although they don’t really mention that when the 15-18 year old is filling out the forms.

But here is where the analogy to the benign burger joint falls apart. Your purchase history with McDonalds and Burger King does not impact your ability to buy products from other companies. The information SAT and ACT provide to colleges from your use of their product can impact your chances to get into the college of your choice.

It’s a fact of the free market. Colleges play games to compete. For higher ed its all a numbers game with money attached. I highly recommend the article by Steve Cohen in Forbes “The Three Biggest Lies in College Admission.” Colleges are most concerned with their ranking, which is important in a free competitive market, and they play a lot of games with the numbers in order to boost their ranking as high as possible. They will use the information they get from ACT (and other sources) to boost their ranking which means:

  • Skewing selection of applicants towards the very highest end of their published score range. This helps them sort from the very large pool of applicants, but also helps to report their average scores as very high. This is why colleges are happy to only considered your Super Score from ACT (highest of all the times it was taken.)
  • Looking for a good mix in the class, not the student: scholars, athletes, musicians, actors, legacies, and those who can pay the full price. According to Cohen, “The applicant who is attractive but not really special in any one category is going to have a much tougher time getting in.” Now they can use things like low Chances of Success scores to keep that applicant out too.

Imagine what this kind of scoring, if it is found to be reliable, will do for those poor graduation rates that many colleges suffer from, or how it might impact overall remediation rates. Colleges won’t have to improve the education they provide if they can do a better job of weeding out the weaker students from the pool in the first place. Picture the hair salon which only took in attractive customers. Their “after shot” portfolio would look fantastic. Though this gaming of applicant selection has always been the case (it’s no surprise that Harvard, which only accepts the cream of the crop, has some of the best graduation and lifetime earning rates), ACT is now giving colleges even more tools to do the sorting.

Is there anyone naive enough to think that this kind of numbers manipulation wouldn’t happen in the K-12 market if it were privatized and open to the free market influences. It already happens in the public K-12 system with elevated FRL rates, test score manipulation, poor performing students being counseled out of charters etc.

The motivation is there for the titans ACT and SAT to continue to expand this kind of data gathering, analysis and reporting in order to gain market share. This is all perfectly acceptable in a free market system, but I do wonder what it is going to do to the average high school graduate in a culture that says everyone must go to college. Might there be some hesitation to take the ACT because their secret scores could actually keep you from getting in to the college of your choice. Oh, that’s right. You don’t have a choice in Missouri. All 11th graders are required to take the ACT now. All that data, even the data from the lowest performing students who never intended to go to college, will help ACT improve their product. It may also be used to keep your child out of the college of their choice, only you’ll never know about those scores.

Cohen says that the trick for families is to find the right fit for college, not to look for one that is ranked best. ACT may be helping in that process, but they aren’t being up front with their customers. States like MO and AL, which require their students to take the ACT, aren’t being up front with parents and students either about them being free development labor for a private company.

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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