Understanding the ACT: Race Divides Us, Aspirations Unite Us
In a recent article for FAIR Substack, David Ferrero argued convincingly that school programs designed to view their subject matter through an “ethnic studies”— rather than an “ethnic histories”— lens can be “reductive, tendentious, divisive, and doctrinaire.” He also pointed out that this narrow approach, which includes indiscriminate references to putative ‘racial’ groups (“black”, “Asian”, “white”, etc.), is antithetical to the ideal of bridging our “ethnic and religious differences in the service of forging a shared civic identity.”
While I am in complete agreement with Ferrero, I would go even further. I believe that there is a fundamental conceptual flaw in using current racial categories in any academic analysis. These categories have become so hopelessly ambiguous that they are virtually meaningless, and they now function as terms of convenience, used only when they serve a political agenda. This is true throughout academia, but is most evident in discussions about academic achievement.
In biology, “race” is a taxonomic term, and like all biological terms, it can be ambiguous. Sometimes it’s used as a synonym for subspecies. Most often, however, it refers to a group of organisms that is biologically or geographically distinguishable from other groups within a species but is still able to reproduce with them.
On the other hand, when referring to humans, most contemporary scientists consider ‘race’ a social construct based on societal definitions without any inherent physical or biological meaning. That point of view is based on the understanding that there is more genetic variability within human racial groups than between them. In other words — to paraphrase the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins — whereas human sex is binary (there are only two), race is a spectrum.
Ironically, despite the fact that most academics consider human racial categories to be socially constructed, they continue to use them enthusiastically as if they represented well-defined, homogeneous groups of people. Think of the controversies over college admissions, disparities in academic achievement, or ethnic studies curricula.
The problems with grouping students in terms of contemporary racial categories are most evident — and most instructive — in how we interpret their academic performance, especially on standardized tests like the ACT. I’ve argued (here, here, and here) that racial categories are virtually useless in explaining student performance differences because the categories are largely arbitrary, often contrived, and always confounded by self-reporting biases and socio-economics. Nonetheless, a race-based narrative continues to dominate our discussions despite the fact that thinking in those terms perpetuates a host of inaccurate, deleterious stereotypes.
The ACT is a standardized test that predicts the likelihood of student success in the first year of college. The overall score is based on the results of four, multiple-choice subject tests, English, math, reading, and science. The number of correct answers for each subject test is converted into a scaled score and averaged. Thirty-six is perfect.
In 2022, approximately 1.35 million students took the ACT. Overall, the average score was 20, about one point lower than the average between 1990 and 2021. In terms of the ACT’s racial categories, the highest 2022 scores were earned by students identifying as Asian (25), White (21), and Two or More Races (20). The next three groups were Hispanic/Latino, Prefer Not to Respond/No Response, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (18). The two lowest-performing groups were American Indians/Alaskan Native, and Black/African-American (16).
This ranking by race has remained virtually unchanged for a decade, and when viewed in terms of these categories, the ranking seems to support the divisive and inaccurate belief that the test is racially discriminatory. However, there are two problems with viewing the scores in this way. First, it’s impossible to know exactly how students sort — or choose not to sort — themselves into racial categories, and there is no way of knowing the ethnicity of those in the Two or More Races (first introduced in 2012), or the Prefer Not to Respond groups.
Second, the categories, themselves, have always been somewhat arbitrary. For instance, in 2012, the ACT separated the so-called, Asian-American/Pacific Islander category into two cohorts that turned out to be completely different in their test performances. In that year, there was a 13% increase in the number of students in the Asian group, and a 12% decrease in the number of Pacific Islanders who met the ACT’s College Readiness Benchmarks compared to 2006. That remarkable divergence has continued. Since 2012, the Asian group’s ACT scores have steadily improved while all other groups have steadily declined. This clearly demonstrates that the original Asian-American/Pacific Islander group was a demographic of convenience with little external validity and which masked dramatic within-group differences. Further, because the two newly created groups are so diverse, it would be virtually impossible to determine precisely why the group performances are so different. Assuredly, the same thing would happen if any of the other racial categories were similarly subdivided.
Then, in 2006, the ACT began analyzing student scores in terms of Postsecondary Educational Aspiration (what students planned to do after graduation). This parameter included seven categories: Vocational-Technical Training, Two-Year College Degree, Bachelor's Degree, Graduate Study, Professional-Level Degree, and two which I won’t consider here, Other and No Response. When the data are considered in terms of these categories rather than race, a very different picture emerges.
In 2006, 2012, and 2022, across all racial groups, ACT scores were 31-51% higher for students aspiring to a professional-level degree compared to students planning on vocational-technical training, and scores were 12-17% higher for those aspiring to a graduate degree compared to a bachelor's degree.
The effects of postgraduate aspirations have been even more dramatic within racial groups every year since 2006. For instance, in 2022, students in every category who aspired to a professional-level degree had ACT scores averaging 47% higher than those planning on vocational-technical training. The largest differences — 53% and 61% — were in the Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander and Prefer Not to Respond/No Response groups. The smallest (but still significant) difference — 35% — was in the American Indian/Alaska Native group.
More importantly, in 2022, students in the four (overall) lowest-performing racial groups who aspired to graduate study or a professional-level degree earned scores as much as 39% higher than students in the (overall) highest-performing groups who aspired to vocational-technical training or a two-year college degree. In other words, Black, American Native, Hispanic, and Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students with high educational aspirations outscored Asian, White, multiracial, and non-identifying students with lower aspirations.
Unfortunately, no one seems to have noticed that aspirations are more important than race in predicting academic performance on the test. I guess that doesn’t fit the popular narrative.
Over the past 15 years, educational aspirations have consistently had a greater impact on ACT performance than self-reported race. This suggests that by doing what we can to elevate student aspirations, irrespective of their race, we will benefit their academic performance. One way to do this is by teaching students that they can and will succeed if they work hard, rather than telling them that they are at the mercy of uncontrollable external circumstances. This will also give the lie to the worn out, race-based tropes about academic performance that are so psychologically damaging to students.
As a Biological Psychologist — and someone who taught standardized test prep for over a decade — I understand that the factors influencing student performance are complex and often the result of long-term trends that vary within and between groups, regardless of how the groups are defined. However, using anachronistic, ambiguous, or contrived racial categories to interpret educational performance is misleading, unhelpful, and divisive.
Racial categories have external validity only to the extent that each represents a meaningfully homogenous and distinct group of people. However, none of these criteria are met by the colloquial categories currently applied to people. Distinguishing students by, for instance, family or socioeconomic demographics, internalized cultural beliefs, personality traits (such as resilience or aspirations), school district, or ZIP code would all be more informative and useful in improving educational policy than the current crude racial categories. Further, to paraphrase Ferrero, refocusing our conversation on aspirations — rather than on our perceived ethnicity — will help us bridge our imagined racial differences, recognize our shared humanity, and encourage us to pursue our goals together.
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