Many Virginia high school students see taking the SAT or ACT as almost a basic requirement—it’s a cultural norm. But according to a recent study published by University of Virginia researchers Sarah Turner and Emily Cook, there are some who don’t even consider it, reducing the number of students who apply to college.
“If you look through the data for UVA, for William & Mary, there are a whole set of districts that don’t send any students to these institutions,” Turner says.
“And even more than that, there are districts where you don’t even have anyone apply,” Cook adds. “They don’t even try.”
Virginia leaves it up to individual school districts to determine how to administer standardized tests like the PSAT, SAT, and ACT. In many rural, low-income districts, there are entire factions of students who don’t take those exams, often because they don’t see higher education as an option.
According to Turner, the biggest explanations are a lack of knowledge about the financial aid options colleges provide, as well as the overall process for getting into those institutions. Researchers are concerned that not enough students are applying to college simply because they’re not aware of all the avenues that could get them there.
The results of the study suggest “there are potentially some opportunities to increase the pool of students” who might seriously consider college. One of them is making optional standardized tests like the SAT more accessible to students, although researchers insist they aren’t advocating for universal testing.
“If you go from where we are now to universal testing, you also increase the number of students who are scoring well below a range that would permit admission to even a very broad-access institution,” Turner says.
Instead, Turner and Cook suggest “targeted intervention,” which identifies students who have the potential to succeed in higher education but might not be considering it, and encourages them to take standardized tests.
Charlottesville High has taken that very approach over the past two years, offering a pilot program for 50 to 70 juniors that provides the SAT for free, and allows students to take it during the school day.
CHS teachers, counselors, and administrators select students—with a preference toward would-be first-generation college kids—and invite them to take the test without having to worry about fees or transportation. (Most SATs and ACTs are administered on weekends, and cost around $50.) These students are typically selected from classes that are geared toward college.
CHS principal Eric Irizarry says the goal of the pilot program is to “give students access and provide some equity with accessing a necessary component of getting into college.” There’s no application process, so those selected don’t need to compete with others for slots.
Albemarle County offers the PSAT for free to both sophomores and juniors (like CHS), but it doesn’t have a blanket program for free SAT or ACT tests. The district says it considers financial assistance for would-be test takers on a case-by-case basis. The UVA report (using numbers from 2014) found that the county had a higher rate (68.5 percent) of students taking the SAT than the city did (55.5 percent). The Virginia state average for school districts that year was 56 percent.
As Turner notes, there are several benefits to taking the SAT. Academically, it gives students a gauge of where they stand. If they think they can improve their score by taking it a second time, they can bring their scores to SAT prep classes offered through CHS so that instructors can better identify key areas to work on.
The most important benefit, however, may be test takers’ automatic registration for the College Board’s email list. This gives universities the opportunity to reach out to kids directly and better inform them of their options both financially and academically.
As a result, low-income students who may not have even scored very high on the SAT could still find opportunities for financial aid or scholarships tied to other aptitudes like athletics, art, or music. It falls right in line with Irizarry’s vision for shaping kids into well-rounded college students. While he wants them to challenge themselves in school and do well on tests like the SAT, he hopes to encourage them to get involved with extracurricular activities and community service projects as well.
“It’s a standardized test, it serves a purpose…obviously, colleges use it, it’s important, but I think it’s just one data point in a lot of points that create a whole child,” Irizarry says. “Children aren’t test scores. They come with a wide range of experiences, and they have a lot to offer that may not come out in a standardized test.”