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Statewide SAT Testing in Maine Linked to Boost in College Enrollment

A new study indicates that statewide administration of the SAT can lead to higher college-going rates, particularly among students who would not otherwise have taken the college-entrance exam.

An article that appears in the March issue of the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis examines high school students in Maine who were expected to graduate between 2004 and 2008. Researchers found that, overall, the policy to mandate the SAT for all students increased four-year college going rates by 2 to 3 percentage points. For students who were induced to sit for the exam because it was given during the school day, college enrollment increased by 10 percentage points.

"That's a pretty big increase in a state that already has a high four-year college-going rate to begin with," said Michael Hurwitz, lead author on the paper, "The Maine Question: How Is 4-Year College Enrollment Affected by Mandatory College Entrance Exams?," and an associate policy researcher with the College Board, which administers the SAT.  (About 50 percent of Maine public high school seniors enroll in a four-year college.) "To move the needle in a state that already has a strong college-going culture was a big deal."

The total cost of implementing Maine's SAT program is about $1 million per year, which the researchers conclude is a cost-effective strategy for boosting college-going rates.

"Some of these students end up performing better than they expected so perhaps we are positively influencing their college aspirations or certainly the overall college-going culture in the school," Jessica Howell, the executive director of policy research for the College Board and a co-author of the paper. Also, students who take the SAT can receive college materials and information on scholarships, she said.

The study is rigorous and some of the results are good news, particularly for encouraging enrollment among students at underserved high schools with lower test scores, said Laura Perna, an education professor and the executive director of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy (AHEAD) at the University of Pennsylvania. The study, however, lacks data on the impact of the tests on bachelor degree completion, she added.

"It is improvement is in the right direction, but it is certainly small in magnitude," said Perna in an interview.

Giving the SAT to all students is a signal that college is valued, but more counseling and rigorous coursework are also needed to get more students ready to pursue higher education, said Perna.

Howell said the research was narrowly focused on the test and documents its impact, but it is one of many policy levers that can be used by states. "We think it makes sense that when you have a universal SAT that some students will be induced into finding out they are more likely to be college material...That has a positive effect," said Howell.

Maine was the first state to require statewide school day testing of the SAT, beginning in the spring of 2006, and make it the state's accountability assessment. This year, Maine will make the SAT optional for students (although the state will still pay for it) and switch to mandating the Smarter Balanced assessment.

Last month, Michigan decided to administer the SAT statewide, joining Idaho, Delaware, and the District of Columbia.

About 19 states now fund administration of the ACT, the Iowa City, Iowa-based competitor to the SAT.

(See more in "State Initiatives Widen Reach of SAT and ACT.")

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