Growing number of California school districts offer students free college entrance exam

August 6, 2017

An increasing number of school districts and charter school organizations in California are offering either the SAT or ACT, the other college readiness test, for free to all high school juniors. Newly published research concluded that one benefit — a statistically significant increase in 4-year college enrollment — shows the effort is a smart investment.

In 2016-17, 22 districts offered the SAT for free, compared with only four districts two years earlier, according to the College Board, which administers the SAT. An additional six districts, plus 10 charter school organizations and Catholic schools and a county office of education, offered the ACT for free last year. Together, they include some of the state’s largest districts and charters: Santa Ana and Aspire Public Schools (ACT), and Long Beach, Fresno, San Jose and Oakland (SAT). (Go here for the full list.)

Superintendents say administering the test during the school day to all students has sharply increased the numbers of students who take it — especially among low-income students. In West Contra Cost Unified, where a third of the students are English learners and three-quarters come from low-income families, the number of students taking the SAT doubled after the district started offering the free test.

SAT and ACT charge $42 per student for the basic test, about $60 with an essay, although districts can negotiate a discount. Long Beach paid $36 per student, based on its percentage of low-income students, according to the district.

Superintendents say a free SAT or ACT for all juniors also helps raise aspirations for all students.

“We see it as valuable,” said Richard Sheehan, superintendent of Covina-Valley Unified District in Los Angeles County, which introduced the SAT for all two years ago. “It creates a high level of expectations, part of our culture of college and career readiness,” and helped raise the percentage of district students who qualified for CSU and UC admission to 62 percent, compared with 43 percent statewide, he said.

When combined with other efforts, such as offering the Pre SAT, or PSAT, in earlier grades and, more recently, using the Khan Academy’s free online tutorials, some districts have reported higher test scores, too. Students in West Contra Costa Unified who took the PSAT twice before taking the SAT scored between 70 and 90 points higher in math, reading and writing on the SAT than students who had not taken the PSAT and 30 points higher than those who took it only once, the district reported. Long Beach Unified Superintendent Christopher Steinhauser said administering a second free SAT in the fall for seniors enabled 119 additional students, whose SAT scores were borderline in 2016 to qualify for admission to CSU Long Beach.

California doesn’t track college enrollment of high school graduates who have taken a college entrance exam, so the latest research, based on students in Michigan, provides more evidence about the potential benefit of state- or district-funded tests. The study in the journal Education Finance and Policy found that universal ACT testing increased college enrollment by 2 percent overall and 6 percent for students from high-poverty high schools. The study examined 226 Michigan high schools before and after the state provided the test to all juniors.

“Although these increases in the four-year college enrollment rate might not appear to be dramatically large, relative to other educational interventions this policy is inexpensive and currently being implemented on a large scale,” wrote Joshua Hyman, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut, who conducted the peer-reviewed study.

In its own study of students in Maine after the state adopted the SAT as a statewide accountability assessment in 2006, the College Board found larger benefits: a 2 to 3 percentage point overall increase in students enrolling in a 4-year college and a 10 percentage point increase in students who otherwise would not have taken the test. Maine and Michigan are among the half of states nationwide that give the SAT or ACT to all students.

More California districts might be interested in offering the ACT or the SAT, which is more popular in California, but the spring administration in the junior year coincides with Advanced Placement exams and the Smarter Balanced 11th-grade assessment, which the state requires all juniors to take to satisfy federal accountability requirements. Arguing that Smarter Balanced is duplicative, last spring Long Beach asked the state Board of Education for permission to drop Smarter Balanced and use students’ results on the SAT to meet the federal law. A dozen states already use the SAT or ACT for that purpose.

“Our high school students and parents see far greater value in the SAT than (Smarter Balanced) because the SAT is the main assessment affecting college admission,” Steinhauser wrote in arguing for a waiver from state law requiring the administration of the Smarter Balanced test.

But State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst denied the request in a letter in February, stating that Smarter Balanced provides a better measure of students’ knowledge of the Common Core academic standards. They raised a half-dozen concerns that hadn’t prevented other states from using the SAT as their 11th-grade state test.

Undeterred, Long Beach and Steinhauser sponsored Assembly Bill 1602. It would have established a pilot program for Long Beach and four other districts to use the SAT or ACT for the 11th-grade test for five years and report back to the Legislature on its comparable usefulness. Steinhauser persuaded Democratic Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, who represents Long Beach, to be the bill’s author, and the Assembly Education Committee, which O’Donnell chairs, unanimously approved the bill.

But Torlakson and the state Department of Education continued to lobby against the bill, and the Assembly Appropriations Committee killed it in May.

The issue isn’t likely to die, however. The College Board says that an additional 10 districts will offer the SAT to all students in the coming school year, and in May, Oregon became the latest state in the Smarter Balanced consortium to decide to replace the 11th-grade test with either the SAT or ACT after next spring.

Sheehan, Covina-Valley Unified’s superintendent, said that he “would be interested without a doubt” in participating in a pilot program using the SAT instead of the Smarter Balanced 11th-grade test.

Steinhauser said he hasn’t given up on the idea.

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