Creating Educational Opportunity Requires More Than a Dashboard Score

Originally posted on on May 29, 2019

Media coverage of the recent ”Varsity Blues” investigation and prosecution involving celebrities and wealthy parents generated a lot of discussion about the role of privilege in admissions. The parents paid a “consultant large sums of money to manipulate the admissions process and create unfair advantages for their children, who already possessed tremendous privilege 

There has been substantial attention paid to this matter and the issues it raises on both traditional and social media, including hundreds of articles, tweets and comments. However, we believe there is a national dilemma that is broader and demands greater attention: Our national credo that the doors of opportunity are fully open to all those who work hard and play by the rules cannot be reconciled with the levels of structural inequality and vast differences in educational opportunity that have grown wider and deeper in our society.  

It should be no surprise that children born and raised in high-net-wealth families living in areas of high socioeconomic status realize significant and long-lasting benefits. These benefits are rarely available to similarly bright, promising and deserving children who grow up in middle class or lower-economically developed areas.  

The micro-advantages enjoyed by the prosperous few accumulate and multiply over time, thus increasing advantage and privilege. It’s similar to the way that early deposits in a savings or retirement account build compounding interest and returns over time.  

There is nothing wrong with parents trying to provide opportunities for learning and personal growth to their children. What is wrong is that, as a society, we have not invested enough to ensure that all children, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, have a fair chance to lead healthy and productive lives. In other words, talent and potential are widely distributed in our society, while opportunity is not.  

A Holistic Mosaic 

At ACT we believe that each individual is unique and complex. That’s why we strive to provide a holistic mosaic of the strengths of each studenta mosaic of skills that include academic, social and emotional learning, creative thinking, and collaborative problem-solving. Our goal is to help students, families and teachers build on those strengths and address areas where the student might need additional assistance 

We are also focused on providing many opportunities for learning, on helping individuals navigate educational and career transitions, and on guiding development of these skills and abilities in a personalized and adaptive way 

Our programs and tools are anchored on the ACT Holistic Framework, a research-based system that identifies a broad range of factors which determine success, including academic factors such as those measured by the ACT® and ACT® WorkKeys® career readiness assessments and also social and emotional learning skills and others. 

It begins with measuring multiple skills that are related to college success, based not on the neighborhood in which students live, but on individual achievement, skills and experience.  

Certainly, academic achievement measured by grades and the ACT test has been shown to be highly predictive of college success, but other factors in the holistic framework can also be measured for individual students, such as:  

  • social and emotional skills that influence engagement and learning,  
  • cross-cutting skills in areas like collaborative problem-solving and creative thinking, and  
  • skills related to exploration, planning and decision-making related to college majors and occupations 

Understanding these domains of growth and development will help students receive the support they need to pursue their goals and aspirations. 

Closing the Gaps in Equity for Learning 

ACT’s transformation from an assessment company to an organization providing learning, measurement, and navigation support to learners is motivated by our commitment to helping schools and communities close gaps in equity for learning. We want to help all individuals achieve their potential and be ready for college.  

For example, our ACT® Academy provides free, personalized and adaptive learning opportunities to prepare students for courses taken in high school as well as standardized tests. We developed ACT® Tessera®, an SEL assessment, to help students identify their social and emotional skills and then improve upon them using the instructional materials and resources available through the ACT Academy platform. And ACT recently acquired NRCCUA, which through its MyOptions platform, provides students with free access to resources and recommendations for navigating the college admission process. 

We believe attempts to quantify the degree of adversity encountered by students, while well-intentioned, are misguided because of the quality and types of data employed. Using census or aggregate data is common in research but unfair when applied to individuals. It is no different than using the average test score at a school to rank individual students rather than their actual test score, or to imagine that an individual student can be understood using a test score alone.   

When school or neighborhood-level data are used to compute an adversity score, the score might reflect a portion of the context for that individual’s experience, but it will rarely, if ever, reflect the fuller circumstances of that individual’s life and, as such, it runs the risk of or introducing or reinforcing potential bias or stereotypes. 

A person’s environment does matter. But even among students living in the same neighborhood, there can be significant differences in the family lives, resources, opportunities and challenges experienced by individual students. When adversity or opportunity is used to make decisions about individuals (such as in admissions, employment, scholarships, etc.), the measures must be based on individual factors, not an average across a zip code.   

Every person deserves a fair chance. At ACT, we focus on creating more equitable environments and opportunities that will impact an individual’s future success at college or work, rather than another score that attempts to account for societal differences without making any improvement in the lives or educational experiences of students.