SAT/ACT: Required for All Students?

SAT/ACT: Required for All Students? on ParentChat with ReginaHere’s a trend I missed (and I do this for a living): Almost half of the states and many individual school districts in other states are now requiring all high school students to take the SAT or ACT, and they are footing the bill. Perhaps equally important, they are testing the students during the school day in the students’ own school. Well, that certainly makes life easier for a lot of high school students and their families. Not having to pay for the test is one thing (without even having to get a waiver from the testing company); but not having to figure out how to register, get your child to some testing site that might be new to you both, and make sure your child arrives at the crack of dawn on a Saturday might be even better.

Some states are indeed using the SAT or ACT as the final piece of their state testing program rather than giving a state-developed test or one of the new tests designed to match the Common Core Standards, thus lessening the testing burden for high school students, many of whom would have had to take the SAT and/or ACT for college admission purposes in addition to their state’s own test. Connecticut, one of the most recent states to jump on board, will be giving the SAT this year to all of its high school juniors at no cost, but will not require a minimum SAT score to graduate.

Now, there is a lot of talk among educators at the state and local level and in higher education about whether the SAT and ACT actually measure a state’s own curriculum standards and, thus, whether the SAT or ACT could fairly be used as a measure of what students learned in their high school classes. Some argue that tests specifically developed by the state or by one of the testing companies associated with the Common Core work that many states have adopted would be the only fair assessment.

Of course, no parent would ever wonder about that because it is just a matter of common sense. Let’s take the SAT. Clearly, it measures English and mathematics skills—skills befitting a high school student who is about to graduate and, hopefully, continue his or her education at a college. Shouldn’t that be good enough as a test of a student’s capabilities—regardless of what the state curriculum standards do or don’t say?

What could be a better definition of “college-ready”—the education buzzword of the last five years—than that students can do reasonably well on a test that hundreds and hundreds of U.S. colleges insist that students take before they apply? The fact that some colleges each year add themselves to the growing list of colleges that do not require the SAT or ACT for admission (the “test-optional” colleges) does not negate the fact that many, many colleges still do require the SAT or ACT for admission. Even many of the test-optional colleges tell students to send their SAT or ACT scores if they think that the scores are a good representation of their abilities (meaning, “send your scores if they are good and you think they will help you get in”). By the way, many, many students applying to great test-optional colleges do just that.

While I am no particular fan of either the SAT or ACT, I do recognize what a hurdle it is for some kids to jump and what a relief it would be for many families to have that hurdle removed. I have seen that hurdle up close in New York City. Here is a statistic that supports the point. According to a recent report of education in 50 U.S. cities just issued by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, 15 percent or fewer of all high school students took the SAT or ACT in 2011–2012 in 32 of those cities. (The report, Measuring Up: Educational Improvement and Opportunity in 50 Cities, explains that we might have expected the figure to be in the 25 to 50 percent range, if we believe that most eleventh and/or twelfth graders in a high school take these college admission tests in any given year.) However you look at it, urban high school students are not taking the SAT and ACT in the numbers that we would expect to see—or hope to see—if we believe that urban students should have the best shot at attending whatever college they wish, either right away or in the first few years after high school graduation.

If you live in a state or school district that requires all high school students to take the SAT or ACT, maybe now you can see how lucky you are. If you do not live in a state or school district that requires all high school students to take the SAT or ACT, it is time to take a close look at why not:

  • All parents: Ask your school board to have the superintendent provide the numbers of juniors and seniors and the percentages of the junior and senior classes that have taken the SAT or ACT in your school district over the past five years. Ask the school board to discuss whether administering the SAT or ACT to all eleventh graders in the spring and/or all twelfth graders in the early fall would be a good idea—either to confirm students’ “college readiness” as they leave your district or to ensure that every student has the opportunity to apply to any college requiring these test scores. This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to study background information before that meeting and to get the input of district administrators before and/or during the meeting, including what the cost would be of providing this testing at district expense and what, if anything, might have to be given up in the budget to make such testing possible.
  • High school parents: Ask your principal to provide the numbers of juniors and seniors and the percentages of the junior and senior classes that have taken the SAT or ACT in your school over the past five years (if you have more than one high school in your district). Ask your principal to discuss how students are advised about taking the SAT and/or ACT. Are all students encouraged to take one or both of the tests? Are all students advised about how many times to take the test and when to take the test? Are all students given help in registering for the tests? Are students who qualify for fee waivers given the help they need to get those waivers? Is the high school a designated testing site? If not, why not and what would it take for the high school to become a designated testing site?

P.S. After I wrote this and before we got it posted, New York City announced that it would offer the SAT at no cost to all public high school juniors, with the test given on a school day rather than on a Saturday. Great that it’s free! Great that the kids don’t have to register! Great that it’s given on a school day! All those hurdles have now been jumped. But just offer it? Why not require it? Almost perfect, New York City. So close.

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