ACT vows to push forward with mission amid pandemic fallout

By Katharine Carlon

The new head of Iowa City-based ACT says the organization remains solid and intends to stay the course, despite a leadership change, cost cuts and a growing number of colleges and universities eschewing admissions testing for the fall semester in response to a disrupted school year.

“So many organizations have had their operations impacted [by the COVID-19 pandemic], but we are very strong,” said incoming interim CEO Janet Godwin, a 30-year veteran of the nonprofit organization best known for its namesake college test. “We have an amazing history, the most talented team you could ever hope to work with, dedicated stakeholders – and people see the value in what we provide. Yes, we’ve been impacted and we’re taking action to shore up operations, but we’re strong and getting stronger.”

ACT announced the departure of previous CEO Marten Roorda on May 28, as well as a series of belt-tightening measures to cope with the economic impacts of COVID-19. Fallout from the pandemic led ACT to postpone its April 2020 national college test date, while the number of U.S. sites open for June and July test dates has been significantly reduced to meet safety and social distancing requirements.

Ms. Godwin declined to comment on the departure of Mr. Roorda, or news reports noting it came as dozens of post-secondary institutions opted to temporarily suspend SAT and ACT scores for entering students.

Mr. Roorda, who was paid more than $1 million annually in salary and compensation, according to the nonprofit’s most recent Form 990 filing, arrived at ACT in 2015 after serving as CEO of Netherlands-based testing organization Cito. He presided over tens of millions of dollars in investment in edtech, data analytics and K-12 products to broaden the scope of ACT’s mission of “helping people achieve education and workplace success” by embracing assessment, learning and navigation tools.

“Our primary message is that Marten did amazing work for ACT in terms of strategy, mission and building a leadership team,” said Ms. Godwin, adding it is against ACT policy to comment on specific personnel issues. “We’re progressing and will continue to focus on progressing our mission in this time of pandemic.”

For employees at ACT, the cost cuts will take the form of voluntary options for team members to reduce their work hours, take leaves of absence, or voluntarily resign and receive severance pay. The organization also said it would give no raises next year, and that some fringe benefits would be reduced.

“Beyond the steps announced Thursday, further cost reductions are expected,” ACT said in its May 28 statement.

Ms. Godwin said ACT had also halted bonuses and significantly dialed down allowable travel. The organization hopes to first reduce non-labor expenses and will make further decisions this week based on the number of employees who voluntarily take reduced hours or leave.

“We will see how far those voluntary measures take us and re-evaluate,” she said.

Ms. Godwin began her career at ACT in 1990 in an entry-level test development role and worked her way up through the ranks to positions in information technology and client engagement, as well as senior-level positions including vice president of operations, chief of staff and chief operating officer, a post that she has held for nearly six years. She is also current president of the Iowa City Community School Board.

No new CEO search has been launched, Ms. Godwin said, with the process on hold as the organization works through its cost-cutting measures and focuses on recovering from the pandemic.

“It is just very variable right now,” said Ms. Godwin, who believes making the test available is important for students who have seen their academic year disrupted, and are awaiting test scores to submit to colleges and scholarship programs. “It’s our responsibility to serve those students.”

Ms. Godwin said ACT is disappointed, but not concerned about a growing number of colleges and universities opting to temporarily suspend test score requirements in light of the crisis. Most recently, regents for the sprawling University of California system decided to phase out their use – a decision Mr. Roorda had lobbied against.

According to The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, more than 50 institutions have made the same decision in recent months, accelerating a movement among colleges and universities to go “test optional.” The nonprofit organization, dedicated to reducing the use of standardized testing as a post-secondary gatekeeper, maintains a running list of test optional institutions that topped 1,200 as of June 1.

“Test optional has been around for quite some time and we understand that other colleges are foregoing test scores because students can’t get to test sites,” Ms. Godwin said. “But we feel extremely strongly that the value of test scores is more important than ever when you look at the disruption of the academic year.”

Recognizing “no one knows when we will get back to normal, if ever,” Ms. Godwin said ACT is moving up previously announced plans to offer remotely proctored testing. The organization’s research indicates online and paper scores are comparable, with the added benefit that scores are available faster for online tests. She said ACT is currently working to develop a “fair and equitable network of remote locations” for students who would like to take the test at home, but cannot access necessary devices, an internet connection or a quiet place to take it.

“The test center closings due to the pandemic have brought the need for an online testing option to attention in a very highlighted way,” she said, adding that ACT has been piloting remote-proctored testing for a year and hopes to have it in place by late fall or early winter. “We’re focused very heavily on when we do launch – it’s a valid measure and we have good feedback on the direction we’re taking.”

One thing that won’t be changing under Ms. Godwin’s leadership is ACT’s aggressive expansion of its reach outside college testing.

In mid-May, just before his departure, Mr. Roorda announced the acquisition of ScootPad, a personalized adaptive learning platform for K-8 students. Other recent acquisitions included Mawi Learning, a provider of curriculum and professional development focused on social-emotional learning, in 2019, and Knovation, a curator of K-12 open educational resources, in 2018.

“That strategy that Marten brought to ACT is a strategy we’re still pursuing very aggressively,” Ms. Godwin said, adding that while ACT’s historic strength is in assessment, its July 2018 acquisition of educational data science and research organization NRCCUA took ACT’s navigation capabilities “to the next level.”

While ACT has offered test preparation and workforce learning for some time, recent strategic investments in social learning and open education resources have bolstered its abilities. Ms. Godwin said ACT’s most recent ScootPad acquisition “helps bring the content of other acquisitions to bear. It was the last piece we needed from a capital perspective to bring our assets together.”

“There is no shift in our strategy and now that we have all of the pieces, it’s about how can we accelerate,” she continued. “This pandemic has had a profound impact on school-based learning. It’s very likely that online solutions become even more important going forward and the environment for quality working tools is going to be very attractive.”   CBJ