ACT's College Readiness StandardsView Best in Class
Reading, English, and Writing
The ACT is an independent organization that is best known for providing a college entrance assessment that bears the same name. For this review, we have analyzed the reading, English, and writing domains assessed through the organizationâ€™s Education Planning and Assessment System (EPAS). Despite some shortcomings and omissions, the ACTâ€™s reading, English, and writing standards delineate much of the content that students need to master to be ready for college in the realm of English language arts.
Three assessments comprise EPAS: the EXPLORE, PLAN, and ACT tests. These are administered at grades eight/nine, ten, and twelve, respectively.
The ACT assesses five domains: English (which focuses exclusively on grammar and conventions), math, reading, science, and writing. For this review, we analyzed the Domain Definitions for the ACT reading, English, and writing assessments.
The reading and English domains are subdivided into strands. For each strand, individual standards are provided for seven broad score ranges : 1-12, 13-15, 16-19, 20-23, 24-27, 28-32, and 33-36. The writing domain is organized similarly, except that the writing standards are provided for only five (rather than seven) score ranges: 3-4, 5-6, 7-8, 9-10, and 11-12.
Finally, unlike state standards documents, which include expectations for topics like research, oral presentation, and media literacy, the ACT assessment framework addresses only reading, English (i.e., grammar and conventions) and writing. Because the ACT standards are intentionally narrower than typical K-12 English language arts expectations, we evaluate each domain individually, and then average the three scores together for the final grade.
Content and Rigor
Of the three ACT domains reviewed here, reading is the weakest; the standards are often vague and repetitious. Take, for example, the following standards from the â€œMain Ideas and Authorâ€™s Approachâ€ strand:
Identify a clear main idea or purpose of any paragraph or paragraphs in uncomplicated passages. (Score range 24-27)
Infer the main idea or purpose of straightforward paragraphs in more challenging passages. (Score Range 24-27)
Infer the main idea or purpose of more challenging passages or their paragraphs. (Score Range 28-32)
Identify clear main ideas or purposes of complex passages or their paragraphs. (Score Range 33-36)
At first glance, the intended distinction in rigor from one â€œscore rangeâ€ to the next is difficult to discern. What is the difference, for example, between â€œmore challengingâ€ and â€œcomplexâ€ texts? For that matter, what is the difference between â€œmore challenging passagesâ€ and â€œmore challenging passages or their paragraphsâ€?
Fortunately, ACT does provide a definition for each of these descriptors. Coupled with the â€œSample Passages and Annotations,â€ which contains annotated sample passages in each genre tested (prose fiction, humanities, social science, and science) and at each descriptor level (uncomplicated, more challenging, and complex), these definitions help the reader better understand the difference between â€œuncomplicated,â€ â€œmore challenging,â€ and â€œcomplexâ€ passages.
While the standards do not specifically address vocabulary, the â€œMeanings of Wordsâ€ standard outlines a small handful of repeated expectations about the use of context to understand figurative language. For example, in at least one case students are to use context â€œto determine the appropriate meaningâ€ of some â€œnonfigurativeâ€ words. Unfortunately, itâ€™s not obvious what â€œnonfigurativeâ€ words are and, even if it were, context alone cannot determine meaning. It may in fact mislead students who do not consult a dictionary to confirm a wordâ€™s etymology and various definitions in order to determine which definition the author may have intended.
Moreover, although the EPAS program as a whole and the ACT test in particular are designed for college-bound students, the standards do not specifically address the study of American literatureâ€”something a reading assessment for college readiness in the United States should certainly do.
Because the reading standards are somewhat vague and repetitious, and because they are missing as much as 35 percent of the critical content (including vocabulary and American literature) essential to rigorous English language arts standards, the reading standards are awarded a five out of seven for Content and Rigor.
Clarity and Specificity
The EPAS reading standards are plagued throughout by vague verbs and jargon that make it difficult to understand what, specifically, students are likely to know and be able to do. In particular, the frequent declaration that students should merely â€œunderstandâ€ a topic renders far too many standards essentially unmeasurable. Take, for example, the following â€œSequential, Comparative, and Cause-Effect Relationshipsâ€ standard:
Understand the subtleties in relationships between people, ideas, and so on in virtually any passage. (Score range 33-36)
Similarly, too many standards are so broad as to be virtually meaningless. Take, for example, the following â€œGeneralizations and Conclusionsâ€ standards:
Understand and generalize about portions of a complex literary narrative. (Score range 28-32)
Use information from one or more sections of a more challenging passage to draw generalizations and conclusions about people, ideas, and so on. (Score range 33-36)
Because the language is so nebulous, and specific content is so difficult to mineâ€”let alone measureâ€”the reading standards fail to communicate much of anything. Consequently, they can earn no higher than a one out of three for clarity and specificity.
Content and Rigor
To their credit, the ACTâ€™s College Readiness Standards delineate specific benchmarks for the use of standard English conventionsâ€”the area in which incoming students and employees are the weakest, according to university faculty and employers.
Even more impressively, the standards in this domain are rigorous and detailed. They address six critical content areas:
#Topic Development in Terms of Purpose and Focus;
- Organization, Unity, and Coherence;
- Word Choice;
- Sentence Structure;
- Conventions of Usage; and
- Conventions of Punctuation.
The standards also reflect an understanding of, and appreciation for, the inextricable relationships among grammar, rhetoric, and logic. The first three sub-categories address these relationships across a number of standards, as in the following examples:
“Topic Development in Terms of Purpose and Focus”
Add a sentence to accomplish a subtle rhetorical purpose such as to emphasize, to add supporting detail, or to express meaning through connotation. (Score Range, 28-32)
â€œOrganization, Coherence, and Coherenceâ€
Make sophisticated distinctions concerning the logical use of conjunctive adverbs or phrases, particularly when signaling a shift between paragraphs. (Score Range, 28-32)
In conjunction with the reading and writing standards, these expectations for the correct use of standard English conventions could help improve studentsâ€™ knowledge and boost confidence in their communication skills.
These rigorous and comprehensive English standards easily earn a seven out of seven for Content and Rigor.
Clarity and Specificity
The clarity and specificity of the ACTâ€™s College Readiness Standards for English (i.e., grammar and conventions) are generally excellent. By stressing aspects of grammar, usage, and punctuation that are often neglected in statesâ€™ standards, these English standards make expectations unmistakablyâ€”and impressivelyâ€”clear. For example:
Recognize and correct marked disturbances of sentence flow and structure (e.g., participial phrase fragments, missing or incorrect relative pronouns, dangling or misplaced modifiers. (Score range 20-23)
â€œConventions of Usageâ€
Ensure that a pronoun agrees with its antecedent when the two occur in separate clauses or sentences. (Score range 24-27)
â€œConventions of Punctuationâ€
Recognize and delete unnecessary commas based on a careful reading of a complicated sentence (e.g., between the elements of a compound subject or compound verb joined by and). (Score range 24-27)
The standards send clear signals to teachers and students about the important relationship between knowing (and applying) basic rules of standard English conventions and the ability to express oneself effectively.
In some places, the standards also include parenthetical examples, such as:
â€œConventions of Punctuationâ€
Delete unnecessary commas when an incorrect reading of the sentence suggests a pause that should be punctuated (e.g., between verb and direct object clause). (Score range 20 â€“ 23)
This exemplification is extremely helpful for clarifying expectations. While the standards could be improved by including even more examples, overall the clarity and specificity are exemplary.
Any hiccups with clarity and specificity are minor. (One unfortunate standard in the punctuation sub-strand, for example, asks students to â€œdeal withâ€ multiple punctuation problems. A poor verb choice, this diction error could be easily corrected.) Yet these slight problems of clarity do not detract from the overall presentation of the English standards. They earn a three out of three for Clarity and Specificity.
Content and Rigor
The ACT College Readiness Standards for Writing are generally strong but are constrained by their very purposeâ€”they only describe student performance on the ACT writing testâ€™s own â€œpersuasive essayâ€ promptâ€”and are, therefore, limited in their usefulness.
The ACT presents five writing strands: Expressing Judgments, Focusing on the Topic, Developing a Position, Organizing Ideas, and Using Language.
The standards presented within each strand generally demonstrate a reasonable progression in rigor. Take, for example, the following â€œExpressing Judgmentsâ€ strand:
Show some recognition of the complexity of the issue in the prompt by
- acknowledging counterarguments to the writerâ€™s position
- providing some response to counterÂ¬arguments to the writerâ€™s position
(Score range 7-8)
Show recognition of the complexity of the issue in the prompt by
- partially evaluating implications and/or complications of the issue, and/or
- posing and partially responding to counterÂ¬arguments to the writerâ€™s position
(Score range 9-10)
Show understanding of the complexity of the issue in the prompt by
- examining different perspectives, and/or
- evaluating implications or complications of the issue, and/or
- posing and fully discussing counterÂ¬arguments
(Score range 11-12)
The standards do present most of the content and skills that students need to master to become proficient persuasive writers. For instance, the â€œFocusing on a Topicâ€ strand admirably includes expectations for â€œpresenting a thesis that establishes a focus on the topic,â€ a basic expectation that many statesâ€™ standards no longer address. In addition, while the standards for â€œUsing Languageâ€ focus more on style than on grammar, usage, and punctuation, when combined with the ACTâ€™s excellent English standards (described above), they can help ensure good writing from students.
While persuasive writing is an essential genre for college and career success, the writing standards at this level should also address other essential genres, such as argument (writing a straightforward analytical essay) and narrative writingâ€”not just persuasive writing. Their failure to do so can earn them no higher than a five out of seven for Content and Rigor.
Clarity and Specificity
While the clarity and specificity of the ACT College Readiness Standards for Writing are generally good, some of the standardsâ€”particularly those found within the â€œExpressing Judgmentsâ€ and â€œDeveloping a Positionâ€ strandsâ€”are too vague to understand what, precisely, students should know and be able to do. Take, for example, the following standards from the â€œExpressing Judgmentsâ€ strand:
Show understanding of the persuasive purpose of the task by taking a position on the issue in the prompt. (Score range 7-8)
Show clear understanding of the persuasive purpose of the task by taking a position on the specific issue in the prompt and offering a broad context for discussion. (Score range 9-10)
Show clear understanding of the persuasive purpose of the task by taking a position on the specific issue in the prompt and offering a critical context for discussion. (Score range 11-12)
Similarly vague language appears in the â€œDeveloping a Positionâ€ strand as well.
While practice test books from the ACT provide sample student answers along with commentary, the standards themselves could be improved by including sample responses and commentary.
The standards have too much vague language and not enough sample responses and commentary. These deficiencies do not provide teachers clear guideposts to inform their instruction and therefore the standards can earn no higher than a two out of three for Clarity and Specificity.
Taken together, the standards presented for the three ACT English language arts domains (reading, English, and writing) are strong. While the standards are occasionally vague and repetitiveâ€”especially in the reading and writing domainsâ€”their overall rigor is commendable. Averaged together, the ACT English language arts standards earn an eight out of ten, or a B+.
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