Richard Ferguson, board chairman and CEO of ACT, stood before a crowd of 150 university, testing, business, and government leaders gathered to celebrate his company’s 50th anniversary.
“How many of you have taken the ACT?” he asked.
Nearly every hand went up.
ACT, best known for its college entrance exam, started with an idea from a professor in the University of Iowa College of Education. It has grown into a multifaceted, multinational enterprise. But the nonprofit continues to enjoy a strong bond with its founding institution.
Professor Emeritus Leonard Feldt was invited to sit in the front row at the anniversary event this August and realized he was one of only a few people present who not only remembered ACT’s launch, but was there, helping make it happen.
Feldt had been a graduate assistant for E.F. Lindquist, the legendary professor of measurement and statistics in the College of Education. Lindquist already had created the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the Iowa Test of Educational Development. In the 1950s he recognized a need for a new college entrance exam to serve public universities and smaller colleges in the way that the College Board’s SAT served elite, private universities.
Feldt remembers that prior to the late 1950s, the standard for Iowa’s three universities was to accept students who placed in the top half of their high school classes. But more and more students who met that criterion began applying for admission.
“It became a strain on the universities,” Feldt says. “So this was the motivation Lindquist had. He threw himself into the idea of implementing a college-entrance examination system and organization.”
Lindquist joined forces with Ted McCarrel, UI dean of admissions and registrar, to found the American College Testing Program.
Feldt remembers that when Lindquist was working on a new idea, he devoted himself to it, spending “23 ½ hours a day” engrossed in it. But once he had the concept in place, he preferred to step aside and let others implement his ideas.
That’s where Feldt came in.
Feldt, then an assistant professor, was charged with creating the first American College Testing Program exam. He visited experts at universities around the country and recruited them to write questions. He also served as a writer and edited the entire exam.
McCarrel also had an assistant: Arthur Mittman, then director of the University Examination Service. Mittman traveled to universities recruiting them to use the test.
Early ACT employees were housed in University of Iowa offices. The first test-item writers were paid out of the College of Education’s budget since ACT didn’t yet have any income of its own.
Even though he trusted Lindquist’s vision, Feldt says he never imagined ACT would grow from its humble beginnings into the powerhouse it is today.
“I believed in what he believed in and I knew the test would find a market of universities and colleges of every size,” he says. “I knew it would grow, but I am just amazed.”
Ferguson quantified ACT’s growth for the anniversary celebration audience, which included UI president Sally Mason and Iowa governor Chet Culver.
The first ACT exam was given in 1959 to about 75,000 high school students in 16 states. In 2009, nearly 1.5 million high school seniors across the nation and around the world took the college entrance exam.
In 1960, ACT had six employees. Today, ACT employs 1,250 full-time staff. Most work on the 300-acre campus in northeast Iowa City.
In 1959, ACT’s total revenue was $129,000. In fiscal year 2009, ACT brought in more than $250 million.
In 1959, Lindquist envisioned a college entrance exam that would also help universities place students in appropriate courses once admitted. Today, ACT’s reach is much broader.
“Today we offer a broad array of assessment-based solutions to individuals, educational institutions, government agencies, and organizations around the world,” Ferguson says, noting that his company changed its name from the American College Testing Program to ACT in 1996. “In contrast to our original name, we are global; we focus on the workforce and the full spectrum of education, not just colleges; and we do much more than testing.”
Cynthia Schmeiser, president and chief operating officer of ACT’s educational division, has been an ACT employee for 36 years and is a former Feldt student.
“We help kids and adults prepare for transitions they go through in their lives,” she says. “We started with just one test and we’re really in the human development business now. We’re creating opportunities.”
Schmeiser and Ferguson, both of whom have taught courses in the UI College of Education, are just two of several direct ties that still exist between ACT and the college.
Ferguson pointed out at the ACT celebration that ACT and the college have teamed up to cohost conferences. ACT has employed hundreds of UI students as research assistants and interns and UI graduates as full-time staff members. ACT staff members serve on UI students’ dissertation committees and teach UI courses as adjunct faculty. Numerous UI professors, such as Robert Forsyth of the College of Education, have served as consultants to ACT or participated in advisory and review panels.
Some from ACT move to the College of Education as well. Professors Robert Brennan, Michael Kolen, and Catherine Welch were ACT employees earlier in their careers.
Jim Maxey worked for ACT from 1969 to 2008. He also has served as an adjunct faculty member, teaching statistics in the College of Education since 1967.
“There’s been a very rich exchange in the field of measurement and educational research between the University and ACT,” Maxey says. “It’s a wonderful relationship.”
Feldt, who stopped working on the ACT exams after a few years because his plate was too full with other scholarly pursuits, said he was proud to be present at the ACT anniversary celebration and to reflect on the company’s past 50 years.
“I don’t regret any of the gray hair I got from working on the first tests,” he joked.
by Heather Spangler