by Gigi Wood
IOWA CITY – The past six months were busy ones for the world’s largest standardized test maker.
ACT, which employs 1,500 people globally, including 1,000 in Iowa City, is starting a new era.
In August, Dick Ferguson retired as CEO after working at the company for 38 years and serving 22 years as its leader. He now works for Best Associates, a privately owned merchant banking institution in Dallas, but maintains a home in Iowa City.
The company’s new leader, Jon Whitmore, took the reins Sept. 1. About a month into his tenure, ACT hosted its annual meeting with its entire staff and board of directors. They began discussions of the company’s new vision and a strategic plan to meet its new goals.
“With the new CEO it’s normal to think about the future, to define the future or reinvent it and we used that meeting as a kickoff,” Mr. Whitmore said. “They came and shared their vision for the future.”
Mr. Whitmore comes to ACT via a circuitous route. He most recently served as president of San Jose State University, starting in 2008. Previously, he was president of Texas Tech University, from 2003 to 2008, and was provost at the University of Iowa from 1996 to 2003. His two children are attending the UI. He was selected following a nationwide search by ACT’s board.
He is tasked with expanding ACT’s business as educational requirements are altered on the federal level, as the company itself changes and as technological developments transform the test-taking industry.
As the company eases into these new areas, Mr. Whitmore said his background in education will be useful.
“I think ACT is in the education business,” he said. “Their mission statement of wanting to help people advance in their education or workplace needs is an educational mission. So, having taught in and been an administrator in higher education institutions all of my career is a different kind of thing, but it’s still about trying to have people be successful.”
Working for the private sector brings a new freedom to Mr. Whitmore’s work as the company plans its future.
“This is a not-for-profit organization, not a state agency, which I’ve always been a part of,” he said. “There’s, to some extent, a freedom of being an administrator in a not-for-profit corporation over a university following state guidelines. If you’re part of the California state university system, then you have your own internal guidelines as to how you’ll operate. It’s normal if you’re part of a bigger bureaucracy, you’re going to have more bureaucracy to deal with.”
Two weeks ago, ACT’s new vision was formally approved and now the board is working on the strategic plan. Those changes will be implemented more quickly than they would on the university level, he said.
“Once those things are approved they will expect us to set up strategies and step-by-step processes to see that those things get taken care of,” Mr. Whitmore said. “The freedom is in, we’ll have the choice about how we’ll go about doing that, rather than having to be defined by some state or large university system guidelines.”
The changes will cover a number of areas.
“I think there are changes ahead for our society and for our competitors and our partners in these senses,” he said. “One, technology is constantly changing and providing opportunities for different kinds of delivery, different kinds of communications with our customers and so on.”
As that technology changes, ACT will examine its ability to provide its exams to any student, any time, anywhere. That concept presents a host of security issues, compared to its current system, which involves supervising a handful of test days throughout the year, typically in school classrooms.
“The paper and pencil model is a very efficient way to deliver a test six times a year,” Mr. Whitmore said.
Allowing students to take the test on their laptops at home is an issue every standardized test maker is trying to solve, he said. It would allow more students to take and retake the test, thereby increasing business.
“We’re going to use technology and adapt new technologies to adapt how we deliver tests and deliver information to school systems and teachers or parents,” he said. “Right now, no one has the perfect system for giving tests anywhere, any time and having total security.”
Colleges need to be sure the person applying for admission is the same person who took the ACT test that is being submitted with that application.
“Somehow, we need to know you are the one taking (the test), whether it’s your thumbprint or your handprint or your eye reading or a camera on your computer and it’s absolutely secure,” Mr. Whitmore said. “We don’t have a solution to that. No one does.”
That shift could lead to an unfair test-taking environment, something ACT will consider as it plans for its future.
“Does that prevent some kid who comes from a poor family and doesn’t have a computer in the house and can’t take it at 1 in the morning because they don’t have a decent computer or a high-tech modem connection, is that fair? So it’s not a simple issue, because there needs to be fairness,” he said.
The company will also be reaching out to students through social media to increase its number of test takers. ACT is in the process of adding new positions to deal with those new technological challenges.
New federal standards
The year 2014 is the deadline for schools to meet Common Core standards, a voluntary system that as of December, 43 states have chosen to participate in. Common Core elevates the math and reading proficiency levels students are expected to meet. The change means students in the program will study from a universal curriculum for the first time in country history.
ACT will develop tests and tools for the participating school districts.
“They’re more rigorous expectations than coming out of high schools as far as what people need to know to be successful and go on to college,” Mr. Whitmore said. “Everything we do will be adjusted to helping those state standards be implemented.”
Almost every product ACT produces will be recalibrated to those standards, he said.
“The good news is we were sitting at the table when those new standards were created and embedded in those standards are a lot of data points that ACT uses in the making the tests and evaluations that we currently do,” Mr. Whitmore said. “So it’s not like we have to reinvent ourselves it’s more like we have to tune up to some new standards.”
The buzz word of this year’s State of the Union address was “innovation.”
It’s a concept ACT has already taken to heart as it hires its first Chief Innovation Officer to develop new ideas internally. To remain profitable and competitive, ACT needs to more quickly develop new initiatives to keep the company ahead of the game.
With 1,000 workers in Iowa City alone, there are always new ideas that come up but do not get addressed or implemented. The new CIO will be in charge of tracking those ideas and verifying their validity.
“We want to take the ideas of our customers and employees and put meat on the bones of those ideas,” Mr. Whitmore said. “There is no mechanism in place to get those ideas out there, so we will be working on creating a stronger culture of innovation.”
Locally, ACT will take on a larger role within the community with Mr. Whitmore at the helm. He said the company will work more actively with the city and UI to lower its carbon footprint and increase its environmentally friendly practices.
ACT regularly contributes millions in scholarship dollars to area schools, including the UI and Kirkwood Community College, to support education in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) initiatives. The company will also continue to support arts and culture in the community. ACT recently made a sizeable donation to the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts.