Marsing breaks away from SAT Day mold

(UPDATED, 5:47 p.m., with more details on the state’s costs.)

Marsing High School was an SAT success story this year.

Scores at the four-day school in Southwest Idaho’s Owyhee County took off in April. Students averaged 1,414 on the three-part test, up 116 points from April 2014. That eclipsed Idaho’s average score of 1,353. No high school saw a bigger improvement, according to an Idaho Education News analysis of the latest SAT scores.

Tim Little, Marsing High School
Tim Little, principal, Marsing High School

But Principal Tim Little is quick to point out that there’s more to the story. For one thing, his school consciously decided to offer testing options to their high school juniors. Only 16 of Marsing’s 36 juniors took the SAT in April — and these students are most likely to go on to college, Little said.

Marsing represents a microcosm in a larger debate, one that appears to be picking up momentum. Does it make sense for all high school juniors to take the SAT, whether they plan to pursue a four-year degree?

Idaho requires all high school graduates to take a college placement exam of some kind. In effect, the state has doubled down by making the SAT its college exam of choice. Since 2012, juniors have been able to take the SAT on the state’s nickel. On April 15, Idaho held its fourth annual “SAT Day” at high schools across the state, and 16,792 students took the exam.

The argument for SAT Day, devised by former state superintendent Tom Luna, is that exposure to the college-placement test could motivate students to take a closer look at higher education. If students fare well on the SAT, they’ll be more likely to apply for college — or so the argument goes.

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Ybarra22
State superintendent Sherri Ybarra

But current state superintendent Sherri Ybarra seems skeptical. On Aug. 14, the day the state released a round of statewide SAT results, Ybarra seemed to distance herself from the SAT Day concept. When the state covers SAT costs across the board, lower-income and limited English proficiency students take the exam in the greater numbers — and this large sample helps explain scores that have stagnated, and dropped slightly in 2015.

“These are the very reasons educators warned that we should shift from the old (No Child Left Behind) ‘one-size-fits-all’ culture, to the motion picture of growth, of our students, over time,” she said in a statement.

SAT Day is no small expense for the state. Idaho pays $42.40 in SAT fees per student — a cost that covers the SAT and an online prep course. It’s part of a $1.1 million line item that covers the cost of several pre-college exams, not just the SAT.

Marsing High School
In 2015, Marsing no longer required all of its high school juniors to take the SAT. Only 16 of 36 juniors took the test on April 15, during Idaho’s statewide SAT Day,

In Marsing, the district encourages students to consider their options— and puts its own money behind the idea.

In 2014, all of Marsing’s juniors took the SAT. This year, the district kicked in about $1,000 to cover students who chose to take the COMPASS assessment, offered in conjunction with the nearby College of Western Idaho. COMPASS satisfies the state’s graduation requirement, but is an easier test than the SAT, Little said.

It’s also geared more toward students who are considering technical or trade school.

“Every kid has different goals and different ways of meeting those goals,” Little said. “The SAT isn’t built for every student in our school.”

Participation rates affected test scores elsewhere, as well.

At Frank Church High School — Boise’s alternative high school — scores improved by nearly 100 points. But participation also dropped, Superintendent Don Coberly pointed out. Seventy-seven percent of students took the SAT in April, down from 89 percent a year ago.

Participation dropped, albeit slightly, at Caldwell’s Thomas Jefferson Charter School, where average SAT scores improved by 94 points. The average SAT score now exceeds 1,550, the SAT’s benchmark that denotes college readiness.

Part of the strategy at Thomas Jefferson — a charter that uses the Harbor Method of education — is simply to encourage students to take the test seriously. This message is applied to all phases of learning, principal Chuck Ward said. Heading into the SAT, students are reminded that they will be competing in a global workplace against students from other states and other nations. “This was a way to find out how you stack up against them,” Ward said.

Eighty-five percent of Thomas Jefferson’s students took the SAT in April, down from 90 percent in 2014.

While some schools saw improvements this spring, others are analyzing a dropoff. McCall-Donnelly High School saw mean scores drop by 154 points, although the school remains above the Idaho average.

Based on McCall’s 2014 scores on the PSAT, the SAT dress rehearsal administered to sophomores, Principal Tim Thomas expected a dropoff in SAT scores. Heading into the new school year, McCall-Donnelly has changed its test preparation, in hopes of a rebound.

All 58 of McCall-Donnelly’s juniors took the SAT in April. Thomas has mixed feelings about SAT Day. He’s not sure it encourages college enrollment — the college-bound students were taking the test anyway. But he sees value in the data.

“It allows us to look at how we’re doing,” he said.

Idaho Education News data analyst Randy Schrader contributed to this report.

More reading: Breaking down the SAT Day results, in four quick lists.