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.”

Silver Lining Playbook

Memphis’ youngest students show reading gains on 2018 state tests — and that’s a big deal

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student works on reading comprehension skills at Lucie E Campbell Elementary School in Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

Those working to improve early literacy rates in Shelby County Schools got a small morale boost Thursday as newly released scores show the district’s elementary school students improved their reading on 2018 state tests.

The percentage of Memphis elementary-age students considered proficient in reading rose by 3 points to almost one-fourth of the district’s children in grades 3 through 5. That’s still well below the state average, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said “we obviously have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Tennessee’s largest public school district since 2013.

Strengthening early literacy has been a priority for the Memphis district, which views better reading skills as crucial to predicting high school graduation and career success. To that end, Shelby County Schools has expanded access to pre-K programs, adjusted reading curriculum, and made investments in literacy training for teachers.

Hopson said the payoff on this year’s TNReady scores was a jump of almost 5 percentage points in third-grade reading proficiency.

“It was about five years ago when we really, really, really started pushing pre-K, and those pre-K kids are now in the third grade. I think that’s something that’s really positive,” Hopson said of the gains, adding that third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future school performance.

TNReady scores for Shelby County Schools, which has a high concentration of low-performing schools and students living in poverty, were a mixed bag, as they were statewide.

Math scores went up in elementary, middle, and high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. But science scores went down across the board, and the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools

Hopson said he was unsure how much the scores of older students — all of whom tested online — were affected by technical problems that hampered Tennessee’s return this year to computerized testing.

“From what people tell me, kids either didn’t try as hard in some instances or didn’t take it seriously,” Hopson told reporters. “We’ll never know what the real impact is, but we have to accept the data that came from these tests.”

But students in two of the district’s school improvement initiatives — the Innovation Zone and the Empowerment Zone — showed progress. “We’re going to double down on these strategies,” Hopson said of the extra investments and classroom supports.

In the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which oversees 30 low-performing schools in Memphis, grades 3 through 8 saw an uptick in scores in both reading and math. But high schoolers scored more than 3 percentage points lower in reading and also took a step back in science.

The ASD takes over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigns them to charter operators to improve. But in the five years that the ASD has been in Memphis, its scores have been mostly stagnant.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin are reviewing the new data to determine next steps.

“We are seeing some encouraging momentum shifts,” McQueen said.

Scores in

After a wild testing year, Tennessee student scores mostly dip — but there are a few bright spots

PHOTO: Getty Images/Sathyanarayan

Student test scores were mostly flat or dipped this year in Tennessee, especially in middle school where performance declined in every subject, according to statewide data released on Thursday.

But there were a few bright spots, including improvement in elementary school English and high school math — both areas of emphasis as the state tries to lift its proficiency rates in literacy and math.

Also, performance gaps tightened in numerous subjects between students in historically underserved populations and their peers. And scores in the state’s lowest-performing “priority” schools, including the state-run Achievement School District, generally improved more than those in non-priority schools.

But in science, students across the board saw declines. This was not expected because Tennessee has not yet transitioned to new, more difficult standards and a new aligned test for that subject. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the drops reinforce the need to support science teachers in the shift to higher expectations beginning this fall.

The mixed results come in the third year of the state’s TNReady test, which measures learning based on academic standards that have undergone massive changes in the last five years. The 2017-18 school year was the first under new math and English standards that are based on the previous Common Core benchmarks but were revised to be Tennessee-specific. And in addition to new science standards that kick off this fall, new expectations for social studies will reach classrooms in the 2019-20 school year.

In an afternoon press call, McQueen said “stability matters” when you’re trying to move the needle on student achievement.

“It takes time to really align to the full depth and breadth of these expectations,” she said.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentage of students statewide who performed on track or better, both this year and last year, in elementary, middle, and high schools. The blue bars reflect the most recent scores.

McQueen acknowledged the good and bad from this year’s results.

“While we’ve focused extensively on early grade reading and are starting to see a shift in the right direction, we know middle school remains a statewide challenge across the board,” she said in a statement.

Tennessee’s data dump comes after a tumultuous spring of testing that was marred by technical problems in the return to statewide computerized exams. About half of the 650,000 students who took TNReady tested online, while the rest stuck with paper and pencil. Online testing snafus were so extensive that the Legislature — concerned about the scores’ reliability — rolled back their importance in students’ final grades, teachers’ evaluations, and the state’s accountability system for schools.

However, the results of a new independent analysis show that the online disruptions had minimal impact on scores. The analysis, conducted by a Virginia-based technical group called the Human Resources Research Organization, will be released in the coming weeks.

Even so, one variable that can’t be measured is the effect of the technical problems on student motivation, especially after the Legislature ordered — in the midst of testing — that the scores didn’t have to be included in final grades.

“The motivation of our students is an unknown we just can’t quantify. We can’t get in their minds on motivation,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on the eve of the scores’ release.

Thursday’s rollout marked the biggest single-day release of state scores since high school students took their first TNReady tests in 2016. (Grades 3-8 took their first in 2017.) The data dump included state- and district-level scores for math, English, science, and U.S. history for grades 3-12.

More scores will come later. School-by-school data will be released in the coming weeks. In addition, Tennessee will unveil the results of its new social studies test for grades 3-8 this fall after setting the thresholds for what constitutes passing scores at each grade level.

You can find the state-level results here and the district-level results here.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.