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College Board markets midweek SAT testing to schools

The ACT college admissions test overtook the SAT for the first time as the most popular college admissions exam by a margin of a few thousand students.The College Board, which owns the SAT, has been watching the ACT’s ascent for several years, and has taken some steps to try to reclaim its position. Here’s a piece by Nancy Griesemer,  an independent educational consultant based in northern Virginia,  about what the College Board has been doing to promote the SAT.  She helps families with college admissions at College Explorations.

By Nancy Griesemer

In a move designed to counter growing use of the ACT by states to measure student achievement, the College Board recently introduced “SAT® School Day.” This program enables participating districts and states to fund official SAT test administration in their schools during the week and not just on Saturdays.

Locally, Prince George’s County seniors took the SAT last year, on Oct. 17. The test was administered at nearly all high schools in the district and cost the county $32.11 per student—specially discounted from the usual $50 registration fee.

In the District of Columbia, public high schools will be giving the SAT on Wednesday, Feb. 27, and all juniors are being strongly encouraged to take advantage of the free SAT as a first step in the college application process.

Designed to give states and school districts the option of administering an “official” mid-week SAT, SAT® School Day appears to be morphing from a program created to support state-wide achievement testing to a more targeted effort to reinforce college-going cultures within low-income school districts.

In the beginning, the College Board seemed to be looking for a head-to-head match-up with the ACT, which has been quietly signing state-wide assessment contracts across the country. These are lucrative deals and the ACT—first cousin to the Iowa Test of Basic Skills—has already corralled 20 percent of the states including Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota, Tennessee, Wyoming, and most recently, North Carolina.

The College Board, with an entirely different kind of test, hasn’t been as successful entering the market. So far, only Delaware, Idaho, and Maine are administering the SAT to all juniors within their states.

But these states hardly produce the kinds of numbers the ACT is racking-up as a result of entering the No Child Left Behind market. And it’s not just about registration fees.

The state-wide contracts produce names and mailing lists which are worth their weight in gold to colleges. In addition, test-makers are understandably anxious to be the first to get their products out in front of college-bound students and their families. By having taxpayers fund free tests, states and school districts are in effect marketing a particular brand—and that’s a powerful incentive for students to use those test results for application purposes.

“To understand the motivation of the College Board and, increasingly in recent years, ACT, the old adage, ‘follow the money’ is sound advice,” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest). “Despite their ‘non-profit’ status, both companies appear to focus primarily on new projects that boost their bottom lines.”

Although not exactly participating in SAT® School Day (the graduation requirement is piggybacked onto the May administration of the SAT), Maine has been funding state-wide administration of the SAT since 2006. Coincidently, Maine has the lowest ACT participation rate in the country—nine percent.

In Idaho, all public high school students must take one of four “college entrance exams” before the end of a student’s eleventh grade year in order to graduate. A student can take the ACT to meet the requirement; however the cost of the ACT will not be paid for by the state. Only the SAT comes free of charge and is given during the school day. And as a result, nearly 17,000 Idaho juniors took the SAT last year—up from 2,829 the previous year.

Yet even with the added incentive to use the SAT for admissions purposes, 11,842 students in Idaho’s high school class of 2012 took the ACT at some point during their high school career.

And thanks to a provision in Delaware’s “Race to the Top” proposal,” SAT® School Day was introduced to Delaware high school juniors last April. The state had a 98% registration rate for the test and the third lowest ACT test-taking percentage in the country.

But even with captive audiences in each of these three states, the SAT fell behind the ACT in terms of popularity in 2012. For the first time last year, the ACT narrowly edged out the SAT by slightly fewer than 2000 test-takers out of about 1.65 million who took each exam. Someone was clearly celebrating in Iowa.

So enter SAT® School Day for low-income students. Basically re-branding the program, the College Board is now marketing midweek testing to school districts anxious to build college-going cultures within their schools.

The DC Public Schools and Prince George’s County Public Schools signed-on along with targeted districts in five states. Last October, 6,800 PGCPS seniors registered for SAT® School Day.  Juniors in DC and Prince George’s County will have their opportunity in February and April.

While the goal of reaching out to low-income students is laudable, the tests are actually given to all students within specified schools regardless of whether or not they qualify for SAT “fee waivers” or free and reduced price lunch. In fact, everyone benefits from the subsidy.

And there are other benefits.

For students, not only is the test free, but it’s also given during a regular school day in familiar surroundings by a familiar administrative staff. Students also have free access to the Official SAT Online Course, which includes interactive lessons and online practice tests ordinarily priced at $69.95.

School districts get baseline information on student performance. But they pay handsomely for the test as well as donate instructional time, classroom space, and test proctors.

Colleges get potential access to an increased and diversified pool of students through the College Board Student Search Service. But they too pay for the many new names generated by participating high schools.

And who benefits most of all? The College Board, which modestly takes credit for supporting low-income schools and school districts and profits from guaranteed registration fees, donated classroom space and proctors, lots of free promotion, and valuable lists of names they market to colleges.

In addition, the College Board is able to position itself to bid against the ACT for state-wide achievement testing. No doubt the recent addition of North Carolina to the nine other states using the ACT for this purpose is weighing heavily on the College Board, especially since the SAT has always dominated the Carolina market.

“This looks like a (shrewd) marketing move to parry ACT’s strategy of getting entire states to incorporate its test into the mandatory public school testing cycle,” commented Schaeffer. “In both cases, hard-pressed taxpayers end up underwriting the program, while test-makers reap the advantages of lower administrative costs and economies of scale.”

Clearly not everyone is happy about SAT® School Day. Counselors have expressed equity concerns about the test, and they wonder about geographic distribution and scoring with such a relatively limited pool of test-takers.

Issues of ownership have also cropped up.  If the school or school district pays for the tests, do they own them and can they post score results on school transcripts—a practice frowned upon by students and families anxious retain control over access and distribution of this kind of personal information.

“If you are taking the test before you are prepped and ready, and you don’t like the scores, can they be reported to colleges without the student’s permission?” asked Wendie Lubic, a DC-based independent educational consultant. “In other words, will students be required to take the School Day test and lose control over their scores and be forced to report them?”

You may also be interested in this story, about problems with the SAT cited by the new head of the College Board.