The Corner


A More Accessible ACT and SAT

A student walks across the campus of Columbia University in New York, October 5, 2009. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

“Few low-income youth ‘decide’ against college,” writes Brookings’ Susan Dynarski. “Rather, they miss a key deadline, or incorrectly fill out a form, or fail to take a required class, and thereby fall off the path to college.”

So how can we ease the way? For a good starting point, Dynarski directs our attention to the administration of the SAT and ACT, tests which most selective colleges and universities require for admission. Right now, they are generally conducted outside of school hours and in limited locations, and they come with registration fees — all of which limit their accessibility to disadvantaged students. Recognizing the problem, Dynarski explains, some dozen states have started giving the SAT or ACT at school, during school hours, and for free. In most cases, the test stood in for another standardized test that the high schoolers would have had to take anyway.

The plan seems to be working. For one, it raised the rate of test-taking from 35 percent among low-income students in Michigan to almost 99 percent. In addition, according to a study by Joshua Hyman, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut, the test also uncovered low-income students who might have otherwise not applied to college: about 480 for every 1,000 who had taken the test before 2007 and had scored well. Researchers have shown the same pattern in other states experimenting with the universal SAT or ACT, Dynarski notes, including Colorado, Illinois, and Maine.

Given the potential benefits of Dynarski’s proposal, and its impressively low cost, states around the country would be foolish not to pursue it, and to consider universal screening programs designed to identify gifted and talented [children] who aren’t lucky enough to have pushy parents.

Editor’s Note: This post has been amended since its original publication.