Indiana juniors, who were freshmen when the COVID-19 pandemic first closed schools, will experience another first next spring: They will be required to sit for the SAT.
At a time when many colleges and universities are dropping standardized test scores from their application considerations, Indiana will instead require all juniors to sit for the test as one possible path to graduation.
As state test scores from spring showed, Indiana students fell behind in learning amid pandemic disruptions, and teachers are aware they urgently face a dual mission.
”A lot of our students are a year behind, so we’re trying to catch them up and then also prepare them for this massive college test,” said GEAR UP Director of School Programs Steve Heinold.
The state switched from its previous annual standardized exam, the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress (ISTEP), to the SAT as part of a sweeping series of changes to graduation requirements in 2018.
After a two-year delay, the change goes into effect this school year for juniors in the class of 2023.
Under the new graduation framework, the state will meet its federal accountability requirements through the SAT, chosen for its utility to college-bound students, according to the architect of the changes, Rep. Bob Behning.
But students who don’t meet the still-undetermined benchmarks have other pathways to graduation, such as completing an approved apprenticeship or demonstrating proficiency on a military aptitude test.
The state Department of Education will determine passing score rates — or cut scores – next summer.
Preparations are already underway for students and teachers ahead of the March test date in schools and through a bootcamp run by Purdue University’s GEAR UP, a federally funded program designed to provide students a path to college.
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The latter offered a bootcamp to about 500 Indiana teachers last month to train them to prepare students for the test.
The camp focused on the culture of the test, Heinold said: how it might differ from classroom teaching and how to support students through what can be a frustrating experience.
Teachers also discussed prep strategies, like what to expect from each section and ideas for incorporating practice into the classroom through informal, timed exercises.
“A lot of teachers have taken the SAT, but then to embed that into your curriculum is a different story. The SAT is kind of a different language,” Heinold said.
Heinold said the push for standardized testing as a graduation requirement came about due to concerns that schools weren’t graduating students with college reading and math abilities.
Switching to the SAT from the ISTEP was meant to gauge better how prepared Indiana students are for college, Heinold said, though concerns linger about the test's bias.
By requiring all juniors to take the test, Heinold said the state might see students who were not planning on college consider it.
“It’s a little wake up call,” Heinold said. “Normally, we have to individually find these students.”
But since the change was made, the COVID-19 pandemic has led some colleges to drop the test requirements from their applications. Purdue itself is one of them, with a temporary “test-flexible” policy, preferring the scores but not requiring them.
Even if some colleges drop tests permanently, Heinold said it’s likely that standardized testing will be a part of K-12 and postsecondary education for quite some time, even if the format changes in the future.
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Schools that have worked with GEAR UP have offered extra school hours for students to catch up on what they’ve missed, Heinold said.
Some schools are using other tests like the NWEA or online prep through Khan Academy to track how prepared students are to take the SAT.
“I think there’s going to be shock for a lot of schools when this test happens. A lot of schools will not be prepared as they’d like,” Heinold said. “We think we’ll get more participation next year.”
Jefferson High School, near Purdue, also is focusing on preparing students and teachers for upcoming bootcamps.
The school will spend one professional development day training math and English teachers on test-taking strategies and what research shows works well, Jefferson’s Assistant Principal Barbara Payton said.
“For some of us, it’s been a while since we’ve taken the SAT,” Payton said. “It’s good to see and review what that looks like.”
The school will also hold a preparation session for students this fall, focusing on what to expect on test day, Payton said. There, they’ll have a chance to ask questions about the format and go over the instructions for a test they’ve likely never taken before.
Payton said many students dread any standardized test.
“For students who aren’t good test-takers, it can be very discouraging,” Payton said.
At Jefferson High, too, the scores are not just a tool to improve student learning, Payton said, but a public measure of the school’s performance.
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Still, for college-bound students, the SAT is a chance to take the test for free and send their scores to colleges, Payton said, as well as to scholarship foundations that still require the scores.
She said she hopes the mental toll on students will be lighter this year with the shorter SAT than in previous years with the two-day ISTEP.
They’ll also be in a familiar environment at Jefferson High, which is opening a new, large room that can accommodate endeavors like the SAT bootcamp and still keep students socially distanced.
Payton said teachers and counselors have also started talking to students about the test. As March inches closer, they’ve begun to ask questions, like whether it will count as a “real” SAT test and if they’ll have to take it over and over again, as their older peers did with past state testing.
“It’s much more real now,” Payton said.