Midweek SATs? Who Really Stands to Gain from the New, School Day Tests
Last month, while students across Metro Atlanta walked through their typical Wednesday routines, every junior enrolled in Dekalb County took a county-funded, full-length, official, SAT. When the scores arrive later this week, the students will be able to send them to colleges exactly like they would any other, “regular” SAT scores.
Across the country, thousands of students are now sitting for taxpayer funded “School Day” SATs. If you attend one of the dozens of regional college admissions conferences such as the Southern Association for College Admission Counseling (SACAC), as I did in April, you will hear College Board reps touting the program as a way to increase equity and access in our schools. But, if you listen more closely, you may just be able to hear the cash registers ringing at the College Board. The real winners of the School Day SAT program probably won’t be high-need students but rather ultra-competitive kids at schools that can “pay to play” and executives at the College Board, who have positioned themselves to pull in tens of millions of public dollars in the name of educational equity.
What is the “School Day” SAT
About five years ago, the College Board launched a pilot program to administer the SAT at schools during the week. This was partially in response to the growing number of statewide testing contracts secured by ACT, Inc. Facing shrinking market share, the College Board launched School Day as one strategy to counter the ACT juggernaut. Since its inception, the school day SAT program has continued to grow; last year, more than 45,000 students across seven states took the tests on one of the designated Wednesdays in October, February, and April.
How does it work? The College Board will contract with an interested school, district, or state to offer the Wednesday test if the entity agrees to pay the testing fee for its students. The College Board typically demands at least 2,000 students to bring in “School Day,” but it’s willing to work with certain small districts or private schools that would otherwise be precluded from participation. Unless the school or district qualifies for a price reduction, school day SATs cost $51 per student, which is $1 more than the traditional, Saturday test. Schools provide all of the test proctors.
The College Board’s Spin on the School Day SAT
College Board reps are pounding the pavement, talking about the school day SAT in terms of equity and access. They stress that the program was designed for districts where at least 40% of students qualify for the Federal Free and Reduced Lunch (FFRL) program and that these tests are administered free-of-charge to the students. They claim that low-income and minority students are less likely than their peers to register for the conventional Saturday test because these students may have weekend jobs or lack reliable weekend transportation.
At SACAC, the College Board heralded Palm Beach County as a recent example of the school day SAT’s success with low-income and minority students. With twenty-three high schools and a K-12 enrollment of 174,000, Palm Beach County is the 11th largest school district in the United States. The district decided to pay for all of its students to take the SAT on a Wednesday; as a result, it doubled the percentage of its African-American and Hispanic students who took the test.
Problems with the Equity Pitch
At first blush, Palm Beach County does sound like a success story for the College Board. After all, twice as many minority students took the SAT after the district began offering the school day test. However, when the number of students who took the SAT in the county doubled, the average scores dropped significantly. The average section scores for the county’s African-American and Hispanic students were mostly in the 300s, well below the scores needed for admission to most colleges that consider the SAT. The College Board didn’t track the percentage of Palm Beach County’s students who applied for or matriculated to college, so we don’t know that a single additional student applied to college as a result of taking the test.
The irony is that none of these low-scoring students needed to take the SAT to go to college at all. In Florida, community colleges must admit any student who graduates from high school or who earns a GED. All students who graduate from Palm Beach County can go to college, regardless of whether or not they take the SAT.
What about the College Board’s access claim: that the school day SAT makes it possible for students to take the test who couldn’t otherwise afford it?
Unfortunately, this one doesn’t even pass the straight-faced test. Any student who qualifies for participation in the FFRL program can get a fee waiver to take the traditional, Saturday SAT for free. By charging districts for these students to take the school day SAT, the College Board is collecting money for tests that it would otherwise have to offer for free.
According to the presentation at SACAC, the College Board’s definition of a “high-need” district is one where at least 40% of the students qualify for participation in the FFRL program; however, it appears that almost all public districts would qualify as “high-need” under this definition. Take Florida as an example. While it’s true that Palm Beach County has a FFRL eligibility rate above 40%, so do 63 of the state’s 67 counties! The same holds true in Georgia, where more than 40% of the students are FFRL eligible in 169 of the state’s 181 districts.
Perhaps the most glaring problem with the College Board’s access claim is that it allows any school to offer school day SATs, provided that the school is willing to pay and that it can drum up enough students to make the revenue generated worth the College Board’s time. It doesn’t matter whether the school is public or private, or whether its student body meets a minimum “need” threshold.
This April, while all of the juniors in Palm Beach County sat for the SAT, the test was also offered to all of the students at Cardinal Gibbons High School. Cardinal Gibbons is a private school in Ft. Lauderdale. It has been named one of the top fifty Catholic schools in the nation, and it charges students annual tuition of nearly $10,000. Ninety-seven percent of its students go to college, and only 12% are eligible for FFRL. The school passed the cost of the school day SAT to its families, charging their accounts directly for the test. Suffice it to say, the students who sat for the SAT at Cardinal Gibbons were not exactly the demographic the College Board advertises when it describes the school day SAT program.
If, then, the school day SATs won’t really benefit low-income students more than others, who does stand to gain from them? Ironically, the students most likely to benefit are those vying for spots at top schools like Princeton, Dartmouth, Harvard, and Yale.
Why the School Day SAT May Benefit Elite, High-Performing Students Most
The vast majority of colleges “superscore” students’ SAT scores for admissions purposes. When reviewing a student’s application, schools will consider the student’s highest section scores, even if the student earned those scores during different test administrations. For example, let’s say Caleb takes the SAT in March of his junior year and earns a 2010 (720 Math, 600 Critical Reading, and 690 Writing). When he takes the test again October of his senior year, he earns a 2000 (650 Math, 680 Critical Reading, 670 Writing). Despite the fact that his composite score decreased from March to October, most colleges will read his October SAT score as a 2090, or the sum of his highest individual section scores in Math, Critical Reading, and Writing.
Superscoring privileges students who are able to take the SAT multiple times over those who are not.
Ultra-competitive students who intend to apply early for the admissions bump and who need to fit the SAT Subject tests into their testing schedules stand to gain most from an additional test administration. And for those ultra-competitive kids in private schools, which can pass any additional costs along to the parents, the College Board has created a system where parents can effectively buy top-performing students additional chances to land stellar SAT scores.
The Biggest Winners may be the “Nonprofit” Giants in the Room
If this doesn’t sound fair, you probably aren’t going to hear the College Board complain. The College Board stands to pull in millions of dollars of additional revenue from the school day SAT program. Think about all the ways this program represents a financial “win” for them:
- Schools pay for all students who take the test, while individual students who register receive fee waivers if they are eligible for the FFRL program;
- The program is designed to get more students taking the test more times, resulting in more revenue;
- Schools have to provide their own proctors for the tests, decreasing the administrative costs for the College Board;
- The College Board gains more minority student names for its database, which it sells on a per-name basis to colleges and universities.
The College Board is counting on competitive forces to drive its School Day Program. It has set up a type of Prisoner’s Dilemma in which schools may have to pay in order to keep their students on equal footing with those whose schools offer these extra test dates. In fact, when I asked the College Board’s representative how this “equity” play was “equitable” to Fulton County students when it gave their peers in the neighboring county of Dekalb an extra shot at the SAT, he smiled and said that Fulton should give him a call to sign on. Let the games begin!