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One Way to Increase College Access: Encourage Students to Retake the SAT

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If more students retake the SAT, college enrollment rates would increase—and that's especially true for low-income and minority students.

That's the conclusion of a new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research that examines data on millions of SAT-takers from the College Board. The paper finds that retaking the SAT increases the probability that a student will enroll in a four-year college by 13 percentage points—those students would have otherwise either gone to two-year colleges or not enrolled in higher education institutions at all.

For low-income students, retaking the exam increases the likelihood of four-year college enrollment by 30 percentage points. And for underrepresented minority students, retakes are linked to an increase of 20 percentage points in their four-year college enrollment rate. (Meanwhile, non-minority students see an 8 percentage point increase.) 

However, just over half of SAT takers retake the SAT at least once. That means that the other half of students may be at a competitive disadvantage when applying to college, the researchers write. Nearly 75 percent of the four-year colleges that use SAT scores in the admissions process consider a student's maximum score—and most of those define the maximum score as the "superscore," which is the combination of the highest scores that a student receives on each section of the exam.

So who is currently retaking the SAT? Low-income students are 20.6 percentage points less likely than high-income students to retake the exam, the paper found. While low-income students who qualify for fee waivers are more likely to retake the SAT, they are still less likely to do it than high-income students who have to pay for the retake. (And 53 percent of students who use a fee waiver on their first try do not retake the exam.)

Asian-American students are 12 percentage points more likely to retake the exam than white students, and underrepresented minority students are 9 percentage points less likely to retake than white students. Female students are slightly more likely to take the exam again than male students. And students who take the exam for the first time at an earlier date are more likely to retake—partly because they have more chances to try again, the researchers wrote. 

When students retake the SAT, their scores increase on average by 46 points—which the researchers attribute to either learning or increased familiarity to the test. Students' "superscores" increase by 88 percent. Students who initially scored lower on the SAT have even higher gains on their retake, and low-income and underrepresented minority students also see their scores increase more than their high-income, white, and Asian-American counterparts. 

In an email, Joshua Goodman, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University and one of the authors of the paper, said that taking the SAT a third time also raises scores on average, but not as much as second tries do. 

Benefits of Retakes

Eliminating disparities in retake rates between high-income and low-income students would close about 20 percent of the four-year college enrollment gap by income, the paper found. Equalizing retake rates by race would close about 10 percent of the gap in four-year college enrollment rates between white and underrepresented minority students. 

The researchers also found that students who retake the SAT are more likely to enroll in four-year colleges, rather than two-year institutions. One explanation might be that students who score higher on a retake have a stronger college application and thus, a higher chance of admission at a four-year college. Retaking might also change the mix of colleges to which students apply—students' higher scores might change their expectations for college admissions. 

The researchers acknowledge that highly motivated and well-informed students are both more likely to retake SATS and enroll in college. Their methodology controls for those characteristics, by comparing nearly identical students who differ only in their retaking behavior.

The authors conclude their paper with three big policy recommendations. First, students should be encouraged to take the SAT for the first time at an earlier date. Low-income and underrepresented minority students are substantially more likely to first take the SAT in 12th grade instead of 11th grade, when there are fewer opportunities to retake before applying to college.

Also, SAT fees discourage retakes, researchers found. Policymakers should consider lowering those fees or encourage more people to use fee waivers, they wrote. In fact, 43 percent of students who self-report their family income as under $30,000 do not use a fee waiver. Researchers suggest that the fee waiver application process could be made more transparent, and people who used a fee waiver on the first try could get automated reminders that retakes are free. 

Finally, the researchers encourage informational campaigns, since they found that many students don't know whether they can retake the SAT or don't understand the benefits of taking the test again. The report says question such as, "Is it worth retaking the SAT?" and "Can you retake the SAT?," are common Google searches.

"My broadest takeaway is that SAT retaking is an important part of the college application process, one that more-advantaged students appear to know about and do more frequently than less-advantaged students," Goodman said. "Of all things that a student might do to strengthen a college application, this is one of the easier ones that concerted efforts to intervene might actually improve." 

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