act for all

When states pay for the SAT or ACT, more poor students go to college

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
College acceptance letters in the main entrance at Tindley Accelerated School.

New research finds a simple strategy can modestly boost the share of poor students who go on to college: requiring, and paying for, all students to take the ACT or SAT.

And while the impact isn’t huge, the policy is relatively cheap — just $34 per student increases four-year college attendance by about 1 percentage point for low-income students.

“Although these increases in the four-year college enrollment rate might not appear to be dramatically large, relative to other educational interventions this policy is inexpensive and currently being implemented on a large scale,” writes Joshua Hyman, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut.

In other words, the policy is straightforward, easy to scale, and offers a good bang for the buck.

This validates recent efforts like those in New York City and Tennessee to expand access to these tests, which are required to enroll at most colleges and universities, though it also suggests that the effect of those policies is likely to be small.   

The research, recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Education Finance and Policy, examined Michigan’s policy to require — and, importantly, pay for — high school juniors to take the ACT. (About a dozen other states now administer the SAT or ACT to all students.)

Unsurprisingly, the number of students taking the exam jumped from 56 percent statewide to 91 percent after the policy was implemented in 2007. College attendance in the state then increased by nearly 2 percentage points, though the study can’t show how much of the increase was because of the mandatory ACT.

Hyman found that, prior to the policy, a substantial number of Michigan’s low-income students didn’t take the ACT even though they would have scored at or above the standard for college readiness. That might been due to financial or logistical barriers, like the cost of the test (between $30 and $50) or difficulties traveling to an exam center on a Saturday. (Both the SAT and ACT offer fee waivers to low-income students, but the study notes that the waivers are underused.)

“I show that for every ten poor students taking a college entrance exam and scoring college-ready, there are an additional five poor students who do not take the test but who would score college-ready if they did,” writes Hyman.

The researcher isolated the effects of mandating and paying for the ACT by comparing trends in college enrollment at two groups of schools. Before the rule was put in place, the ACT offered the exam at some schools on weekends, but not at all in other schools. Taking the test became substantially more convenient for students attending schools where the exam had previously not been administered.

At those schools, Hyman found that the policy increased four-year college enrollment by at least 0.6 percentage points — from 32.1 percent to 32.7 percent. The effect was larger — about 1 percentage point — for boys, students in poverty, and students attending high-poverty schools.

These effects are fairly small, but significant for two reasons.

First, since the initiative likely also helped students at other schools, that’s very likely a conservative estimate of the policy’s impact. A similar study of Maine’s SAT requirement showed much bigger effects on four-year college enrollment, around 2 or 3 percentage points.

Second, paying for students to take the ACT is cheap relative to other policies designed to help students. On a per-dollar basis, Michigan’s initiative led to bigger college enrollment gains than college tuition aid, Head Start, and large reductions in class sizes in early grades.

“The mandatory college entrance exam policy is more cost-effective than traditional [college financial] aid at boosting postsecondary attainment,” the study states.

Still, the paper ends on a cautionary note.

“The mandatory ACT is far from a cure-all,” Hyman writes. “In spite of the policy, there remains a large supply of disadvantaged students who are high-achieving and not on the path to enrolling at a four-year college.”

Testing

Memphis school board softens request to reform state’s troubled TNReady test

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
The Shelby County Schools board plans to present its annual wish list to Memphis-area state legislators on Dec. 17.

The board governing Tennessee’s largest school district is asking state legislators to rely less on the standardized test known as TNReady, which has endured a tumultuous online rollout since 2016.

The school board’s annual wish list for state lawmakers dampens stronger language the Shelby County Schools board had proposed last week to “eliminate” the state’s “use and reliance” on the test.

Instead, the Memphis board wants state lawmakers to require the Tennessee Department of Education “to use multiple and/or alternative methods of accountability beyond TNReady that more accurately and reliably assess” student knowledge of state academic standards.

“Much of the trouble with state testing “was around the implementation, not necessarily the tool itself,” said board member Kevin Woods. Board members are scheduled to make their annual presentation to Memphis area lawmakers later this month.

TNReady is the state’s high stakes test that measures student academic performance, starting with third-graders. High schoolers take the online version. In the past, TNReady results have determined teacher raises and evaluations, employment, or whether to place low-performing schools in the state-run Achievement School District. But last year lawmakers temporarily barred using TNReady results for making those decisions after technical glitches interrupted testing for thousands of students.

Leaders in the state’s education department have said that despite the repeated technical difficulties, the test itself is still reliable and a good measure of student progress. In recent years, the state has overhauled requirements for student learning to make them more rigorous. Raising the bar is something the state and Shelby County Schools’ leader Dorsey Hopson agree on — even though Hopson said he had “no confidence” in the online testing system.


Related: Did online snafus skew Tennessee test scores? Analysts say not much.


Testing students is essential for measuring student progress, said Deidra Brooks, the chief of staff for Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy organization. She urged the board to specify an alternative “that would provide parents with an equitable and transparent way for parents to see how their students are doing.”

The board’s legislative agenda noted a previous bill that failed last year would have allowed districts to use the college admissions test ACT instead of TNReady for high school students. The bill also would have limited the time and number of tests students take during the school year.

Also included in the school board’s legislative agenda was the Memphis school board’s desire to have significantly more say in how charter schools are authorized and overseen.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The Tennessee State Capitol stands in downtown Nashville.

For example, the board said it should be able to decide which neighborhoods are “oversaturated” with schools and prevent a charter school from opening there. Many charter and traditional schools have struggled to enroll enough students as the population has fallen and more schools have opened.

The board is also looking for ways to streamline the authorizing process. It wants to cap the number of charter schools a district can authorize each year, and get rid of a provision that allows prospective charter operators to amend their application during the approval process.

Once schools are authorized, board members want the ability to “take interim measures, short of full revocation” when a charter school is not following legal guidelines or meeting academic standards during its 10-year-charter duration.

The board also continues to oppose a state voucher system that would give public money to parents to use for private school tuition. Governor-elect Bill Lee has expressed support for vouchers, which have failed in the state legislature for about a decade. Lee’s commitment to promote the initiative was underlined by hiring Tony Niknejad as his policy director, who was the former Tennessee leader of the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children.

Below is the full legislative agenda board members will share with state lawmakers who represent the Memphis area Monday, Dec. 17. The school board’s presentation is scheduled for 1:35 p.m. at the Pink Palace Museum, 3050 Central Ave.

shift

With new school turnaround model, Tennessee takes lessons learned in Memphis to Chattanooga

PHOTO: Hamilton County Department of Education
A teacher works with students at a Chattanooga elementary school.

A national pioneer in school turnaround work, Tennessee has launched a third model for improving struggling schools — based in part on lessons that have emerged from the state’s first two efforts over the past decade.

The new Partnership Network, now in its first year under a five-year agreement between the state and Hamilton County Schools, is focused on five schools in Chattanooga where student achievement has languished for decades.

The collaborative model takes a page from learnings garnered mostly in Memphis. The city is the hub of the state’s two other turnaround models, one of which involves wresting control of low-performing schools from the local district.

“I would describe this model not as a state takeover, but a state pushing” toward a different style of intervention, said state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen of the Partnership Network.

All three turnaround options are outlined in Tennessee’s plan under the new federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. The law requires each state to come up with a strategy for improving chronically underperforming schools.

Most promising so far has been Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, a district-led program that provides struggling Memphis schools with extra state-funded resources and charter-like autonomy.

The other approach, the state-run Achievement School District, has been lackluster in performance and heavy-handed in its execution, but state officials are hopeful it’s a late bloomer, especially under the new leadership of the iZone’s former chief. Known as the ASD, the district has taken control of dozens of low-performing Memphis schools and matched them with charter operators.

State officials once had considered the cluster of Chattanooga schools for ASD takeover. But they came up with the partnership approach as a third way, wherein a seven-member advisory board named by both partners oversees the work of the mini-school district comprising 2,300 students.


One Chattanooga school was once a heralded example of successful turnaround. What happened?


The partnership model, while unique in its structure, will only be as good as its outcomes, McQueen emphasized Monday during the advisory board’s second meeting.

Since embracing school improvement as part of a 2010 overhaul of K-12 public education, Tennessee has committed to a series of independent studies to track results with an eye toward data-driven refinements and new strategies. The research is the basis for a policy brief released this week outlining the state’s guiding principles for effective school turnaround. The Tennessee Education Research Alliance, a collaboration between Vanderbilt University and the state education department, developed the guidelines.

There is no magic bullet, said Gary T. Henry, the lead researcher behind the brief and a professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt.

He said the work of fixing struggling schools is “the most challenging work in public education today.” That’s because it really does take a village, he said, that includes the local school district, the state, federal dollars, and a sustained commitment from all parties to attack the problems from multiple angles.

Vanderbilt researcher Gary T. Henry and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin talk about school turnaround work with leaders of Hamilton County’s new Partnership Network.

In addition, there must be a willingness to treat low-performing schools as special cases that merit additional resources and higher pay for effective teachers and administrators — something that school districts are loathe to do and that defies political gravity, Henry said.

It also means building a district-within-a-district organizational structure dedicated to school improvement; removing barriers to improvement such as high teacher and leader turnover rates; increasing capacity for effective teaching and leadership with supports such as curriculum, training, and mentoring; and establishing school practices and processes — like opportunities for teacher collaboration — that promote continuity and stability.

“Doing one or two of these will not necessarily change the lives of students and teachers and principals. But doing all five intelligently and in focused fashion can,” Henry said.

The work must recognize, too, the profound impact of poverty on the students who generally attend low-performing schools, said Sharon Griffin, the former iZone chief hired last spring to run the state-run ASD.

“Sometimes just showing up (to school) is a miracle,” Griffin said of kids who bring adverse and chronically stressful experiences into schools and classrooms.

A nationally recognized turnaround leader, Griffin told the new Chattanooga advisory board about the improvement work she has “lived and breathed” as a Memphis teacher, principal, and iZone superintendent. She urged them to get inside of schools, stay student-focused in their oversight of the Partnership Network, and plan for a marathon instead of a sprint.

“The work can’t stop. The sense of urgency cannot stop,” she said.