Unequal ACT Scores Among Various Demographics Raise Questions About Bias

December 18, 2020


Abi Cantu

Research has shown that certain ethnical groups habitually score lower on the ACT.

ACT scores have always played a prominent role in post-secondary education, but is the test unfair for some students? Looking into the demographics of the ACT, it has been found that students of different ethnicities vary in their average ACT scores.

On average, Asian and White students scored above the state average, and all other student groups of color scored below the state average,” a study from EducationNC said.

Looking deeper into this, North Carolina’s state averages can be reflective of nationwide trends. Asian and White students had the highest mean ACT scores, with 21.9 and 20, respectively. Both groups scored higher than the state average of 19, whereas all other ethnicities scored below average. The average score for American Indians was 16.9. This research can be found in the demographics of Ivy League schools, where attendance is predominantly white. When looking solely at diverse groups, you can still see similarities between scores and schools.

“Asian American students occupy approximately 22 percent of the student population, followed by African Americans at 14 percent, Latinos, and Hispanics at 12 percent, and Native Americans at 2 percent,” The College Monk said in a study on Harvards’ Demographics.

As for why this happens, it is still not clear. It could be a mixture of factors, but one that has been looked into frequently is the relationship between race and socioeconomic status.

“Our results suggest that non-Asian student groups of color may be differentially exposed to educational conditions and contexts that may limit their ability to attain a postsecondary degree,” ED NC said.

As people are not completely sure why this happens, and it could be varying conditions, ACT has done a study on how socioeconomic status and ethnicity compared to scores.

“At low levels of SES[socioeconomic skills], White students tended to have the lower SE[social and emotional] scores,” ACT said. “However, as SES increased, they tended to have higher scores relative to minority groups. Across SES levels, Asian students showed higher Academic Discipline and Self-Regulation scores.”

ACT did more investigations to get to the bottom of this. 

“Explanations for differences generally fall into one of two categories: genetic/biological or environmental (or an interaction of the two),” ACT said. “… Although an equal educational opportunity for all students has been urged by the Every Student Succeeds Act, …  the understanding of culturally responsive programs or interventions for SE skills through a racial/ethnic equity lens still remains limited.”


Unequal Test Prep Opportunities

Some of the biggest factors in doing well on the ACT have little to do with the content of the test itself, but rather circumstances leading up to the test. A lot of these factors, whether its physical preparedness or access to study tools, often put low-income students in desperate situations at a distinct disadvantage.

“Both times when I took the test I made sure to have a big breakfast,” senior Lauren Menhert said. “If you’re hungry during the ACT, you’re going to be distracted, and it could factor into your score.”

This is harrowingly bad news for the estimated 13 million children in the United States who are at the very least at risk of going hungry. Unfortunately, their testing disadvantage doesn’t stop there.

“The first time I took it, I hadn’t really practiced or studied,” Menhert said. “I bought an ACT practice book, and I would go through and do the practice tests, I think the book cost 20 or 30 dollars, and my score went up by 3 points.”

This opportunity to buy a tool that could possibly help one prepare for the test is not something that everyone has the disposable income to do, especially people of color. According to the Institute for policy studies, 30% of African Americans and 27% of Latinos have more credit card and student loan debt than they do disposable income. Once again, adding a new bout of adversity one must conquer if they’d like to have the same access to opportunity that someone from privilege may have.


Bias Within the Test

Teachers are aware of these findings and want to make sure students have equal opportunities.

“No one is really sure as to why this is,” ACT prep teacher, Patrick Flynn said. “If you could figure out why and [we can] address it right away and say let’s take care of it.”

Even in Kansas, it is no different to anywhere else in the U.S., however Flynn mansions our state average is higher because we have less diversity than other states have. ACT prep at West is free for all students. The course was usually held during Power 50, but due to online schooling, it is now a weekly course after school, through Zoom.

“People coming into get prep, it’s every kind of student out there,” Flynn said.  “Students of all ethnicities, men, women, it’s not like it’s all one type of person coming in.”

Some say that bias towards certain ethnicities may be an inherent part of the ACT itself, but ACT has tried hard to make it not so.

“On the ACT, you will never see anything dealing with cards,” Flynn said. “Cards are culturally biased and in some cultures, playing cards are considered gambling and they don’t allow that.”

Flynn continues to try to prepare any and all students for the test, saying they are now trying to offer as many sessions as possible especially considering the at-home learning model. As a mathematics teacher, Flynn sees first hand the difference between talent and opportunity. 

“Mathematical talent is equally dispersed everywhere, however it is not equally developed everywhere,” Flynn said. “Everywhere, in general, it is not equally developed and that is something to work on too.

Overall, ACT prep has been something West has tried to make available to all students, keeping these statistics in mind.

“The key is, as teachers, we are acutely aware of it … Let’s be aware of this and try to match our curriculum up a bit better,” Flynn said.


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