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In response to pandemic, ACT looks for savings in payroll, eyes at-home testing

Aimee Breaux
Iowa City Press-Citizen
A yellow No. 2 pencil and ACT test date.

After postponing April exams, the Iowa City-based testing giant ACT is looking to its payroll for savings. 

The company is halting all raises and asking employees to voluntarily take a leave of absence, reduce work hours or resign with severance pay. In an announcement Thursday, ACT officials noted that additional "cost reductions are expected."

The company's CEO, Marten Roorda, left the company in late May, around the time the company began asking employees to consider reducing their working hours. New interim CEO Janet Godwin declined to say why her predecessor left, though she praised his work at the company, as well as that of the company's media relations representative, who also left the ACT in May.

Godwin, who has served as the chief operating officer at ACT for the last six years, said the ACT cannot provide an estimate of how many staffers will leave or take reduced hours as the window for employees to choose one of these options is still open.

ACT is grappling with the pandemic as well as a movement by universities to make standardized tests like the ACT and SAT optional, not required, in admissions processes. Most recently, the University of California Board of Regents voted to no longer require applicants to take the ACT or the SAT.

Starting in 2025, the UC system will no longer consider the ACT or SAT in the application process for in-state students. Instead, the university system, which serves around 280,000 students, will create their own in-house entrance exam, which the system president says "more closely aligns with what we expect incoming students to know." Advocates for the "test optional" movement commonly argue that standardized tests like the ACT and the SAT favor students from higher-income families.

The ACT advocated against UC's changes. In an open letter, former CEO Roorda expressed skepticism about the cost to UC in developing a new test and whether creating a new test will address equity issues in higher education. 

Godwin said she does not expect a meaningful change in the number of students who opt to take the ACT because of the UC's decision, reasoning that many students who apply for schools in the UC system also still apply to schools outside of the UC system. 

FILE- In this May 10, 2018, file photo students walk near the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union building on the University of California at Berkeley campus in Berkeley, Calif. A 529 is a tax-advantaged investment plan that was originally designed to pay for higher education expenses. But recent changes the tax law have increased their flexibility. They now may be used to pay for private-school tuition from kindergarten through high school or transferred to accounts to pay for expenses of disabled youth. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

ACT does not release information on the number of students who take its tests each year. Though this year, fewer students are expected to take the test. Some universities, including the UC system, have waived the testing required during the pandemic.

ACT officials have publicly supported this decision, though Godwin asserts that the ACT is still a valuable tool for predicting success in college. 

"I think that was a proper thing to do," Godwin said. "But it does need to be measured and not be persistent.”

ACT likely not going away at Iowa public universities

Iowa public universities have not waived ACT and SAT testing requirements in light of the pandemic. Beyond the academic, the Iowa Board of Regents has historically valued these tests in the admissions process to get into an Iowa public university. 

Students are admitted to Iowa public universities based on how well they score on the "Regents Admissions Index," which considers a student's GPA, high school courses and score on the ACT or SAT.

A committee at the Iowa Board of Regents is undergoing a biannual review of the RAI, determining how to weigh the factors that make up the RAI, including ACT and SAT test scores. 

Past committees have made changes to the RAI, including removing from consideration class rank, a distinction fewer high schools are considering. But Jason Pontius, the regents' associate chief academic officer, says this year's committee still sees the ACT and SAT as strong predictors of grade-point averages. 

Pontius, who is on the review committee, says the RAI, a point of pride for the Iowa Board of Regents, is meant to set the bar for what students need to achieve to get into Iowa universities — in this case a 245 on the RAI. Pontius says there is flexibility in how a student reaches that score and students who score lower are still considered. 

“You can know your odds and you can plan in Iowa," Pontius said.

What's next for the ACT? Tests at home

While students pursuing programs at the University of Iowa will still likely have to take the ACT, that experience will likely look different in the coming months.

The ACT will offer tests this June, but the exam will be offered at fewer testing sites and test-takers will be more spread out across exam rooms in an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19. 

In response to the pandemic, ACT expects to offer students the chance to take the test at home by late fall. Godwin said this has been a goal at ACT prior to the pandemic, but there are still many issues, namely equity issues, that the company is working through. These issues include access to devices and distraction-free space to take a test online. 

“What the pandemic has done is accelerate that process," Godwin said. 

Iowa City School Borard President Janet Godwin sits for a portrait in her office at ACT in Iowa City on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019.

For years now, ACT has promoted a shift from a testing company to a learning company. Under Roorda, the ACT acquired many ed-tech startups.

In her new role, Godwin said ACT is done aggressively pursuing learning companies. She expects ACT will launch at least one new learning product in the fall, though the interim CEO declined to offer more details. 

“I have a high degree of confidence we will get through this [the pandemic] stronger,” Godwin said.