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Op-Ed: The All-Consuming ACT Test

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My daughter is 17 years old, and she is consumed by the ACT test and college applications. Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy that these are the things she obsesses over instead of fashion accessories, cliques, or thankfully, boys.

But, I’m trying to get her to see the larger picture. In five, ten, or twenty years, she won’t care what her scores were -- and that’s if she can even remember what they were. Certainly no one else will remember or care.

But that’s hard to relay to a 17 year old with a perfect GPA and multiple honors and AP classes. And it’s even harder when her peer group has been drinking the Standardized Test Flavored Kool-Aid for the last 11 years of their schooling.

I hear her. It’s what teenagers in her peer group talk about. “What score did you get?” “Are you re-taking it?’ “I might take the SAT instead.” “My parents want me to take a prep-class so I do better.” “The school I want to get into requires at least a 30.” “I hate these tests.”

Of course they hate the tests. Years of schooling, outside reading, life experiences, natural intelligence, and late-night study sessions are ignored. Instead the predictor of success in college is measured in a four-hour window where teenagers use a #2 pencil to color within the lines of the bubbles on a Scantron. I’ve seen students with scores of 22 thrive in college. I’ve seen students with scores over 34 flunk out after one year.

I’ve tried to convey to my daughter that, in one respect, she’s right. Some schools will put tremendous emphasis on the score. But some won’t. Ultimately, she will need to pick a school where she is comfortable. If a school rejects her based on her score (which, by the way, I think is great), would that school be a good fit for her anyway? She should care about where she goes, but not because of a name, or a logo, a glossy brochure, or its ranking in some national survey. She needs to pick a school where she will be at home for four or five years, a place where she feels comfortable, engaged, and happy as she learns about life-- intellectually, emotionally, and socially. The rest will fall into place.

Whatever college she attends, her peer group will become obsessed with asking each other about their major, competing parties across campus, and hopefully, eventually post-graduation plans. But, I can guarantee my daughter that the only ones asking others about their ACT scores are those who scored in the top one percent. They aren’t really interested in others’ scores. Instead, they are uncomfortably stuck in a line to the keg and are still relying on a standardized test to measure their worth against their peers.

Some of her classmates in college will graduate. Some will not. As the diligent ones cross the stage to accept their diplomas, not a single standardized SAT or ACT score will be read from the podium.

After college graduation, she will talk to her newfound community about work, marriages, house/car payments, and TV and family drama. She may not remember how to solve the quadratic equation, but at her job, she will breeze through spreadsheets, write amazing reports, and turn the world on its ear. She will easily graph the ratio of how many times L’il Johnnie pooped in the potty vs. his pants. She won’t recall trigonometric functions, but I guarantee, she can help her son pee in the potty without spilling a drop by moving him back 0.5 meters and having him angle it up at a 45° angle.

And, when she raises teenagers, the hair on the back of her neck will bristle as that damned monster from her youth opens the front door, walks in uninvited, sets itself down on the couch, puts his muddy feet on the coffee table, and belches his presence: “Hi. Remember me? Is your kid home? I’m your daughter’s new arch nemesis. I am the ACT.”

Here’s the advice I hope she can give her teenage child:
A, B, C, and choice D: ACT scores will not determine how smart, compassionate, or happy you will be in life.

My daughter may choose to raise a family. She may choose a high-powered career. She may choose to do both. I wish for her to live a long and fulfilling life. And, I want her and her peer group to understand that the ACT is no more than a green mile marker on an incredibly long and diverse road trip. In two miles, years, and/or decades, she won’t remember much more than the wind blowing through her hair and the colors streaking past her as she raced down the road.


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Valerie Kalos Anderson lives in Colorado where she and her partner are raising their teenage daughter and son. She graduated from Grinnell College in 1989. Since growing into her 40’s, she has become an avid hiker, has climbed fifteen “14ers,” recently ran her first half-marathon, and is currently training for her first full marathon.  She is also in the final stages of editing her first book, “Riding Shotgun to St. Mary’s,” a fictionalized memoir about the ability to heal and take control over her own life as she coped with her parents’ deaths.

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Laugh out loud funny and so true. If only the teenager would read and believe this now.
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