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ACT’s Push for Use of a “Superscore” Composite– Which Still Underestimates College Freshman GPA

December 8, 2019

ACT is promoting “superscoring,” which involves creating a composite score based upon the highest scores of individual subtests across multiple testing sessions.

On August 15, 2019, ACT released a statement about superscoring and how, beginning September 2020, ACT will include a superscore on ACT scoring reports.

Before we get into some details regarding the studies behind ACT’s decision to include superscores on student score reports, let us consider ACT’s statement about how use of a superscore (as opposed to a traditional composite score) is left up to colleges and universities:

…We empirically evaluated the validity and fairness of different score-use policies. Based on the findings, ACT now supports the use of superscoring in making college admissions decisions. And starting in September 2020, ACT will be automatically calculating the superscore for students.

That said, we believe that individual postsecondary institutions should decide which score-use policy is best for them, as they have unique needs and contexts within which the scores are being used. As colleges and universities go about the process of reviewing the existing score-use policy on their campuses, it is our hope that our latest research can serve as one source of evidence contributing to those conversations.

ACT says use of a superscore is left up to postsecondary institutions after ACT has basically set up colleges and universities to be pressured into using the superscore, which by nature will either be equal to or greater than the traditional composite score. In other words, ACT has cornered colleges and universities that prefer to use the traditional composite to consider how doing so might make them less marketable in comparison to postsecondary institutions that use the potentially higher superscore.

This is exactly the quandary Louisiana State University (LSU) finds itself in, as evidenced by discussion between LSU’s VP for enrollment management, Jose Aviles, and the LSU Board of Supervisors at the Board’s December 05, 2019, meeting. To view, begin at minute 46:30 in this video:


In his presentation before the Board, Aviles opens by explaining various ways that postsecondary institutions use ACT composites, including LSU’s current practice of using a student’s best composite score if the student has taken the ACT more than once. Then, Aviles discusses ACT’s August 2019 release of its superscore study, including the number of colleges and universities already (immediately) shifting to using the superscore.

And there is another piece: ACT will start allowing students to sit for individual subtests in an effort to raise that superscore.

Aviles is in favor of using the superscore; he says that ACT has conducted the research; that the superscore is a better predictor of freshman year GPA; that the change in composite is only .3 on average, and that ACT is considering increasing the number of free tests from two to four for low-income students.

It is also clear that Aviles feels the “market pressure”; he explains that LSU has been put into the position of having to make a decision to use the superscore because their competition (other colleges and universities) are already doing so.

Board member comments include not wanting to rush to use the superscore; ACT’s seeming to serve itself by conducting its own study (in conjunction with Harvard) to justify its superscore decision, and concern for the unknown economic impact of changing criteria that could affect the state’s Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS).  One board member refers to students’ retaking the ACT individual tests as a “game.”

And so it is a game, one that will surely increase ACT’s revenue.

As of the end of the discussion between Aviles and the Board (time 1:22:00 in the board meeting video), the Board has not made a decision and wants to revisit the idea of changing to using ACT’s superscore composite.

Aviles is correct that ACT’s pitch for superscore usage is a marketing issue, one that LSU is under pressure to face, if for no other reason than ACT’s decision to print the superscore on student score reports whether a college or university wants to use it or not. So, if LSU (or any college/university) chooses not to use the superscore, students and parents could well be left with the impression that the college/university is “unfairly” choosing the “lower” composite. That is part of what Avilas was trying to communicate to the Board, which is concerned about a rush to change admission processes in a way that could undercut the quality of admissions and also unfairly penalize students who do not retake the ACT again and again.

And this is where ACT stands to benefit handsomely, despite Aviles mentioning ACT’s proposed four-free tests for low-income students: The opportunity to take parts of the ACT repeatedly in order to sculpt an ever-higher, superscore composite will surely increase the percentage of students who take the ACT four or more times, whether in full or (more likely) in part.

As for ACT’s “superscore: study, ACT offers this info in its August 15, 2019, press release:

Previous research indicated that underserved students are less likely than their peers to take the ACT more than once. So, we conducted a second study exploring the impact of superscoring on students in different subgroups. The results are very promising. Subgroups are largely unaffected by superscoring. Moreover, superscores help decrease differences between different subgroups of students after taking into account the number of times tested.

What does this mean? It means that if we can encourage underserved students to take the ACT more often, superscoring may help reduce subgroup differences. If so, college opportunities and access may improve for traditionally underserved students.

The “second study” is a July 2019 “technical brief,” entitled, “Does Superscoring Increase Subgroup Differences?”, which offers detailed resuts comparing most recent ACT composites with superscore composites for various subgroups. However, no details or offered comparing highest composite to superscore composite for various subgroups. If I were blindly reviewing this study for publication in a professional journal, I would reject the study as is for its limited scope. As it is, such information is not useful for institutions that use a student’s highest ACT composite, like LSU. Even so, in its press release, ACT makes the jump to the incomplete results being “very promising” such that

if we can encourage underserved students to take the ACT more often, superscoring may help reduce subgroup differences.

So, what is needed for the ACT to be more accurate is (wait for it) more testing.

Let’s turn this issue on its head, shall we?

ACT is admitting that taking its test once appears to notably underestimate a student’s freshman GPA in college.  For all of that time, money, and (possibly) test prep, once is not enough.

Furthermore, according to the July 2019 technical brief, even twice or more seems not to be enough:

Interestingly, we found that first-year grades for students who tested more often were underpredicted even when prediction models were based on superscores.

Given that even ACT’s superscore underpredicts freshman GPA, perhaps LSU should join ranks with other postsecondary institutions and ditch the ACT altogether.

getschooled test


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Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. You should buy these books. They’re great. No, really.

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  1. LisaM permalink

    SAT, AP, ACT….it’s all BS! Lots of colleges aren’t looking at any of these test results and thank you Varsity Blues, for showing the general public that cheating is abundant.

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