Jan 9, 2013

Mixed Messages from SAT® School Day

Since the College Board introduced SAT® School Day, the program has had a little trouble settling on a mission or a “brand.” 

Designed to give states and school districts the option of administering an “official” mid-week SAT, SAT® School Day appears to be morphing from a program created to support state-wide achievement testing to a more targeted effort to reinforce college-going cultures within low-income school districts.

As described by the College Board, SAT® School Day is an “exciting new initiative” through which participating districts and states are offered the opportunity to fully fund students taking the SAT during a school day at their “hometown high schools.”

In the beginning, the College Board appeared to be looking for a head-to-head match-up with the ACT, which has been quietly signing state-wide assessment contracts across the country.  These are lucrative deals and the ACT—first cousin to the Iowa Test of Basic Skills—has already corralled 20 percent of the states including Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota, Tennessee, Wyoming, and most recently, North Carolina.

The College Board, with an entirely different kind of test, hasn’t been as successful entering the market.  To date, only Delaware, Idaho, and Maine are administering the SAT to all juniors within their states.

But these states hardly produce the kinds of numbers the ACT is racking-up as a result of entering the No Child Left Behind market.  And it’s not just about registration fees. 

The state-wide contracts produce names and mailing lists which are worth their weight in gold to colleges.  In addition, test-makers are understandably anxious to be the first to get their products out in front of college-bound students and their families.  By having taxpayers fund free tests, states and school districts are in effect marketing a particular brand—and that’s a powerful incentive for students to use those test results for application purposes.

"To understand the motivation of the College Board and, increasingly in recent years, ACT, the old adage, 'follow the money' is sound advice,” warned Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest). “Despite their 'non-profit' status, both companies appear to focus primarily on new projects that boost their bottom lines.”

Although not exactly participating in SAT® School Day (the graduation requirement is piggybacked onto the May administration of the SAT), Maine has been funding state-wide administration of the SAT since 2006.  Coincidently, Maine has the lowest ACT participation rate in the country—nine percent. 

In Idaho, all public high school students must take one of four “college entrance exams” before the end of a student’s eleventh grade year in order to graduate.  A student can take the ACT to meet the requirement; however the cost of the ACT will not be paid for by the state.  Only the SAT comes free of charge and is given during the school day.  And as a result, nearly 17,000 Idaho juniors took the SAT last year—up from 2,829 the previous year. 

Yet even with the added incentive to use the SAT for admissions purposes, 11,842 students in Idaho’s high school class of 2012 took the ACT at some point during their high school career.

And thanks to “Delaware’s wining Race to the Top proposal,” SAT® School Day was introduced to Delaware high school juniors last April. The state had a 98% registration rate for the test and the third lowest ACT test-taking percentage in the country.

But even with captive audiences in each of these three states, the SAT fell behind the ACT in terms of popularity in 2012.  For the first time last year, the ACT narrowly edged out the SAT by slightly fewer than 2000 test-takers out of about 1.65 million who took each exam.  Someone was clearly celebrating in Iowa.

So enter SAT® School Day for low-income students.  Basically re-branding the program, the College Board is now marketing midweek testing to school districts anxious to build more of a college going culture within their schools.

Locally, the DC Public Schools and Prince George’s County Public Schools have signed-on along with targeted districts in five states.  Last October, 6,800 PGCPS seniors registered for SAT® School Day—juniors in DC and Prince George’s County will have their opportunity in February and April.

While the goal of reaching out to low-income students is laudable, the tests are actually given to all students within specified schools regardless of whether or not they qualify for SAT “fee waivers” or free and reduced price lunch.  Everyone benefits from the subsidy.

And who benefits most of all?  The College Board, which modestly takes credit for supporting low-income schools and school districts and benefits from guaranteed registration fees, donated classroom space and proctors, lots of free promotion, and incredibly valuable lists of names that can be marketed to colleges.

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