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Making a Difference: ACT Deletes Offensive Sample Essay

As an instructor of two university-entrance exams, the SAT and ACT, I was disappointed recently that an official, sample ACT essay included a quite offensive assertion.

On the ACT website, an essay designed to exemplify a top score of 6 out of 6 argued that machines would lead to people being judged only on their ability, so “there is no reason for a person to remain after they have served their function.”

Then came this attack on two large groups of people: “This would warrant genocide against the elderly and the disabled because their burden on society would not be made up for by any production.”

I understand offensive content is not a factor in grading, but ACT Inc. shouldn’t choose its sample best essay to include such an odious argument.

Also, sticking merely to ACT’s grading rubric, the statement is not – and cannot possibly be – supported by evidence. On the contrary, the elderly and people with disabilities can be productive for society.

Consider 90-year-old former president Jimmy Carter, who, even after receiving a diagnosis of cancer, continues his work with the Carter Center, an organization that reduced the number of cases of the debilitating guinea worm disease from 3.5 million in 1986 to 126 last year.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had polio and used a wheelchair, was elected president for four terms. John Nash, who had paranoid schizophrenia, won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

Counterexamples of that assertion are not limited to famous people. Countless elderly and disabled people are productive members of society.

There is no support in the essay to indicate otherwise. Therefore, the general statement in the essay should have been attacked in ACT’s analysis because the assertion lacks support.

Instead, the analysis merely states that the essay “uses the concept of genocide, rather than a specific example of it, to refine and support the idea that comparisons between human and machine, even in the name of prosperity, reduce and devalue human qualities and pose a great danger to society.”

At least the essay considers genocide a “great danger to society.”

I contacted public relations at ACT Inc., and spokeswoman Katie Wacker responded promptly.

“Our interpretation of the sentence in question was not the same as yours, but we now see how it could be taken differently. With that in mind, we have decided to replace this essay entirely, as we have no wish to offend anyone. We apologize for our oversight in this case, and we will begin the process of selecting an alternative sample to illustrate this score level.”

On a lighter note, I’ll add that critics have long said the ACT and the SAT haven’t given students enough time to complete the essay. The new 40-minute ACT essay launching next month gives students 10 more minutes than the previous one, while the new SAT essay, launching in March, will double the time limit to 50 minutes. Yet, as I write this blog, a week has passed since ACT Inc. responded to my concerns, and ACT Inc. – the maker of the ACT — hasn’t yet posted a replacement of the essay. Maybe even 40 minutes isn’t enough.

Perhaps ACT Inc. needs help from some elderly or disabled people.

Richard J. Dalton Jr. is an advisory board member of the National Center on Disability and Journalism at Arizona State University and owner of Your Score Booster, which teaches the SAT and ACT.