Recently Marten Roorda, CEO of ACT reminded us that throwing away the thermometer won’t get rid of a fever and he’s 100% right. Of course, no doctor in the world thinks that tossing the thermometer will cure an identified ailment. Mr. Roorda’s analogy in defense of the ACT (and attacking the test optional movement) was really subtle and I think many will miss all the ways in which the analogy works. Since I’m a fan of a good analogy (except when they are put on a test) I’m going to help make sure everyone understands why this is an amazing analogy.

Blaming tests for differences in educational quality and access doesn’t eliminate or reduce these inequities any more than throwing away the thermometer gets rid of a fever. – Marten Roorda, ACT CEO

First, temperature (Mr. Roorda must have meant that instead of fever) is one of the standard vital signs used to monitor a patient’s well-being but doctors know that many misconceptions surround fever and that the accuracy of many thermometers is in question. One of the reason that thermometers are unreliable is that they are used by many people who aren’t doctors, I’d even bet that most thermometer users aren’t doctors at all and that means thermometers are often being used by untrained novices incorrectly and inaccurately. Just like the ACT!

Types of Thermometers

Admission tests are constantly overused and misused by those to don’t understand them, didn’t read the directions (technical manual or score use guidelines) and misinterpret the numbers that are given.

Standardized test : Thermometer ::

(A) three pointer : basketball

(B) intelligence : sickness

(C) college readiness : fever

(D) FYGA : rectal temperature

(E) aptitude : health

*Answer to the question is at the end of the post.

Second, thermometers are used to make broad judgements of “health.” Doctors likely only use thermometers to determine the following:

  1. dead
  2. below normal
  3. normal
  4. above normal
  5. dead.

If the ACT or SAT were to be scored the same way it would be a much more accurate use of tests. Mr. Roorda’s analogy points out to us that thermometers are not use to ordinally rank patients. No doctor has ever looked at a .5° difference in temperature and concluded that one patient is healthier the other or that one is more deserving of treatment the other. We should totally use ACT scores that way. I’ve even created a scale that ACT could use to replace their scores that would foster this more responsible use:

Reducing the range of scores would encourage everyone to use the scores the  way doctors use thermometers: to identify the need for further better information.

Third, different types of thermometers are used for different purposes (hell, we could extend the thermometer use cases beyond health to cooking, homes, and vehicles but less not complicate things). This analogy probably means that testing is like a “thermometer” (with the quotes indicating the lack of precision in the word thermometer).  I’m sure Mr. Roorda noticed that using a forehead thermometer doesn’t measure the core body temperature, which is the temp that most doctors are seeking in order to assess illness. The ACT is also lacking in precision when it’s called a test of ability, knowledge, readiness, etc. So again this analogy is spot on!

I wish Mr. Roorda had clarified if he thinks the ACT is a rectal or a disposable plastic strip thermometer. Is the ACT the mercury thermometer that after decades of use the industry has finally started to force it to be phased out? These great analogy should force us to ask ourselves “are some colleges using a rectal thermometer to measure oral temperature?”

*I have no clue what the answer to that analogy is. I’m not really sure what in Marten’s analogy was the test and what was the thermometer. If you figure it out let me know.

Further reading and resources :

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