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Coming to California in 2020: The July ACT

By August 19, 2019 September 20th, 2019 ACT

First The Good News

At long last, ACT test takers in California will have a summer option. This leaves New York as the only state where the ACT is not offered in the summer. More on that below.

Registration is open for the 2019–2020 testing year, and it includes a July date (July 18th, 2020) in California for the first time. Currently there are only 23 test sites offered statewide on that date, and we expect those to fill very quickly.

Since its debut in 2017, summer college admission testing has been understandably quite popular. College Board unveiled its summer SAT on August 26th, 2017, which prompted ACT to follow suit the next summer. These dates have served as pressure valves for juniors feeling overloaded in the spring and have provided those students the chance to conclude testing before the busy fall of senior year. Strong demand, however, has not yet been met with sufficient supply of summer testing sites for either test, so we are advising our class of 2021 clients to plan well ahead.

Now For The (Darker) Backstory

On January 16th, 2018, a colleague in our San Francisco office stumbled upon something curious: there were NO test sites offered in California for the upcoming July ACT. Although the organization had been touting the new summer date for nearly a year, it neglected to mention—even in the footnote that excluded New York—that the test would be unavailable in California too. Compass, I believe, was the first to alert the public of this not-so-little detail. It was as if ACT assumed California test takers would simply discover on their own, eventually, that their home state was oddly missing from the dropdown menu they’d reach toward the very end of a tedious online registration process. Oh. Sorry about that.

After unearthing this and advising our clients and the counselor community, we dug around for the full explanation. It was too peculiar to shrug off. It was not just the exclusion of California but also the failure to overtly mention or explain the exclusion anywhere. We suspected—and soon confirmed via upper-level contacts within ACT—that it related to friction with Truth in Testing laws on the books in California that dated back 40 years. Laws the testing agencies were actively trying to change.

The day after we shared our discovery, ACT responded with a tightly crafted, well-argued statement. It focused on the potential good news, on how ACT’s lobbying efforts would benefit students by offering greater flexibility, if only they could get the law amended slightly. And while we couldn’t dispute that narrow claim, nor the fact that summer testing would be a boon to our test prep business, we saw another side to these efforts that may have explained why ACT had been staying so quiet.

The laws in question were enacted in the 1970s as a set of student protections. They attempted to keep powerful standardized testing agencies like College Board and ACT as accountable and transparent as possible. Given the myriad college admission testing controversies we’ve witnessed in recent years, the issues that inspired those laws have become more relevant, and College Board and ACT deserve more scrutiny than ever. But now those laws were being challenged by the agencies they were designed to govern—ostensibly, to benefit students?

ACT’s statement centered around one, seemingly reasonable ask: “an easy fix” as it were. What ACT mostly sought was to “change the required calculation for the number of test administrations from which a test sponsor must provide test materials to a test subject, as specified.” They explained:

California requires that a testing company release 50 percent of the tests it administers. The statute specifically requires that, if that number includes fractions of a test, the number be rounded up; so, administering six tests would require releasing three of them, but administering seven tests would require releasing four. ACT is forgoing its July test date in California so that we may comply with those requirements. We would like to provide the July test in California so that students there who wish to take it may do so, so we will be seeking a modification that would eliminate any “rounding up” of forms. This is an easy fix that would allow ACT to provide all seven tests in California, still comply with the release requirements, and serve more students who are seeking expanded test dates.
Scott Montgomery, Senior Vice President, Public Affairs, ACT, Inc.

In other words, ACT was not prepared to develop and then immediately burn a new test. Test forms become more lucrative through re-use. The economics of a July test wouldn’t pencil out. So in actuality, this was as much about saving ACT money. Producing and then releasing a new test would be expensive, no doubt. As College Board and ACT have become more fiercely competitive with one another (particularly in battles over large state contracts), there has surely been internal pressure to drive down costs in order to win lower-margin business and remain, uh, profitable. It is rational for companies in such battles to seek ways to spend less. That’s what seemed to be driving the lobbying efforts.

What’s more, every other proposed change that slipped in along with the “easy fix” was made to provide less information around revenue, test taker statistics, accounting and taxes, and the tests themselves. Everything played into the same themes of reducing transparency and containing expenses. 

Both College Board and ACT have disparaged the laws by calling them “antiquated”. They’ve made the laws sound outmoded, but testing in many respects hasn’t changed much from the 1970s. What has changed in recent years is a compounding increase in testing revenue on an unchanged base of tests (more test takers, price increases, more re-testing, more dual testing, more score sends, essay scoring premiums). There has been an offsetting increase in the form of added accessibility to testing and reporting for low income students, but the net effect has benefitted the companies.

But alas, ACT appears to have gotten its way on this one. The rounding calculation is changing. Half of 7 will round down to 3 rather than up to 4. The July ACT is coming to California. Registration is open. Test sites are listed. And yet, there has been no press release; no tweet; no news. That’s a little strange.

For the record, the amended language that allows for this summer test to happen can be found if you go far enough down into the California legislation:

 99157(c): If the application of 50 percent results in a number that includes a fraction, the number shall be rounded down to the nearest whole number.

An easy fix indeed. 

I suspect we’ll see something soon from ACT, and it’ll undoubtedly highlight the benefits to students. Short and sweet. Those benefits are real, but so is the fact that an extremely well-resourced “non-profit” testing organization just successfully lobbied to weaken a consumer protection law. You perhaps didn’t hear about it until now because it was done so quietly. 

A win for students, maybe. A win for the ACT, for sure.

Bruce Reed

About Bruce Reed

Bruce graduated from Colby College and has served in leadership roles in education for more than 20 years. Bruce founded our Northern California office in 2004 where he continues to serve as its hands-on leader while also guiding our Southern California team in his broader role as Compass’ Executive Director. Bruce is recognized throughout the Bay Area and beyond as a visionary and passionate voice in the realm of teaching, testing, and educational development. His extensive experience in one-on-one test preparation, college admissions, and professional development makes him a trusted resource for parents and counselors.

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