Mandatory Testing to Promote College Equity

States that require all high schoolers to take SAT or ACT see gains in enrollment of low-income students, analysis finds.

February 26, 2018
Stock image of a standardized test form.

Year after year, data released by the College Board show that the students who score the highest on the SAT are, on average, the wealthiest among those who take the test. And colleges that have dropped SAT and ACT requirements over the years have regularly cited the way wealthier students (and generally those who are white or Asian) outscore Latino and black test takers and those from low-income backgrounds.

But a new analysis suggests that the SAT and ACT can be used to promote the enrollment of low-income students, many of them underrepresented minorities, in higher education.

The analysis focuses on states that require all high school students to take the SAT or ACT. In such cases, the analysis says, the number of low-income students who go on to college increases.

The study, published by the Brookings Institution, is by Susan Dynarski, a professor of public policy, education and economics at the University of Michigan.

Dynarski focuses on Michigan, which in 2007 started a policy of requiring all high school juniors to take the ACT. Drawing on research by Joshua Hyman, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut, Dynarski writes that the percentage of Michigan high school students taking a college entrance exam increased from 54 percent to nearly everyone. Among low-income students, the percentage taking a college entrance exam had been 35 percent.

The policy, Dynarski writes, also identified students with scores that would get them in to selective colleges. "For every 1,000 students who scored high enough to attend a selective college before testing was universal, another 230 high scorers were revealed by the new policy. Among low-income students, the effect was even more dramatic: for every 1,000 low-income students who had taken the test before 2007 and scored well, another 480 college-ready, low-income students were uncovered by the universal test," she writes.

Further, Dynarski reports on similar patterns elsewhere.

On social media, the Brookings piece has won praise from, among others, Charles Murray, who tweeted of her analysis, "A public policy prescription that is low-cost, huge gain. I don't say that very often. Congratulations to @dynarski and Brookings."

Others on social media have criticized Dynarski for promoting policies that could solidify the role of standardized testing in college admissions. She answers that point in the Brookings piece. "Many worry that college admissions tests are biased against low-income and non-white students," Dynarski writes. "But the reality is that these tests are the gatekeeper to selective colleges in the U.S. The evidence indicates that if taking these tests is voluntary, many talented, disadvantaged students will go undetected."

Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest: National Center for Fair and Open Testing, said he is pleased to see policies that encourage low-income students to apply to colleges. But he said that there are ways to do so that do not strengthen the standardized testing industry, which promotes measures nationally that hurt low-income students.

For instance, he said every state could send fee-free college application forms to every student in high school with at least a C average and work to get students to apply. And he noted research suggesting that high school grades are a better way to predict college success than test scores.

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