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For High-Performing, Low-Income Students, Taking a College Admission Test for Free Could Be a Game-Changer

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Providing free college admissions tests to all students can significantly increase the number and diversity of students applying for college, according to a new Virginia study—but using other measures to focus support could allow states to help nearly as many students for a lot less money.

In a study published Tuesday in AERA Open, a journal of the American Educational Research Association, Sarah Turner, an economics and education professor at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education, and her colleagues used Virginia's longitudinal student data system to model how many students would score well enough to be accepted at selective, open, and community colleges under various state testing policies, including universal free admissions testing and targeted support for testing low-income, high-achieving students. 

Half of states require students to take one or both of the ACT or SAT college admissions assessments, and many districts in other states also pay for students to take the tests to encourage low-income or otherwise disadvantaged students to attend higher education. 

"Universal testing is kind of always thrown out as the gold standard, but it's really expensive to do," both in administrative and student time and money, Turner said. Whether taking the test is worth the expense depends on whether it really helps more students qualify for college.

Fees to take the SAT cost about $50 per student in Virginia. If all Old Dominion students were able to take the admissions tests for free, the study found, nearly 33,000 more students in the 2014 graduating class would have taken the SAT, with about 24 percent more students expected to score at 1,000 points or more out of a possible 1600 on the combined math and reading sections of the test (about average for students matriculating to a four-year university.) Eighteen percent more students would qualify for the state's most selective schools, such as the University of Virginia, and about 40 percent more students would enter the pool for other four-year universities in the state.

Low-income students saw the greatest benefits: Free admissions testing would boost the number of poor black students in the college pool by 40 percent and other poor students by 80 percent. Students who would benefit from universal admissions testing were also more likely to come from smaller and rural school districts—a benefit in a state where rural students also are underrepresented in college.

While the Virginia study did not look at whether increasing the pool of potential college applicants would translate into more students attending college, prior studies in Michigan and other states have found that boosting the number of overall admissions test takers can lead more students to actually enroll. That can be because more students meet this gateway qualification, Turner said, but also because universities often use the tests to collect background information on the students and target them for more outreach.

"There's much to be said for clearing the debris out of pathways here, in terms of onerous applications for financial aid and complicated steps to enrollment," Turner said. "But ultimately encouraging students to make informed investments where they compare collegiate options is very, very important. ... Testing is an important piece of that but certainly should not be confused with the whole package of information-based assistance to help students become better investors in their own future."

Targeted Testing Approaches

The study also suggests that providing free admissions testing does not have to be an "all or nothing" approach. For example, the researchers found that if instead of targeting all students, the state provided free admissions testing only for students who performed at or above the 40th percentile on the Standards of Learning, the state academic achievement tests, it would still reach nearly 9 out of 10 of the students who would be expected to score 1,000 points or more on the SAT. The state also could reach more than 75 percent of the potentially high-scoring but left-out students simply by providing free admissions tests to (mostly rural and low-income) districts where less than 60 percent of students had taken the test already.

"Students who are attending high schools where college-going [in general] or college-going at selective colleges and universities is not the norm, it is those students who are likely to have the  greatest deficits in understanding both what colleges and universities are looking for in admissions, and ... understanding that there are vast differences in colleges in terms of programs of study, resources, and expected outcomes," Turner said. 

Incorporating other measures could provide a clearer picture of a student's college readiness, too. For example, another recent study found that while college admission tests were the best way to predict whether students enrolled in college, high school grades actually proved a more accurate predictor of whether students would persist in college.


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