Measuring up college entrance exams: Are they necessary, fair, or valid?

During her sophomore and junior years, Katharine Turcke would stow away in her room, spending hours studying for the SAT exam, a measure of college preparedness. 

Turcke took somewhere between 30 and 50 SAT practice tests (so many that she started to run out), each of which took three to four hours to complete.

“It took a certain amount of self-taught discipline,” she said. 

Turcke’s family also paid for her to receive private SAT tutoring. The hard work and financial investment paid off. 

This year, Turcke was named as one of Idaho’s two Presidential Scholars, a prestigious award that usually culminates in a paid trip to Washington, D.C., and a meeting with the president (the trip was canceled this year due to the pandemic). Turcke attributes her success in part to her SAT score because meeting a certain threshold on the test is the first criteria to qualify as a Presidential Scholar nominee. 

A 2022 Boise High School graduate, she said her score also helped her get into Pomona College, which has a highly selective admit rate of 6.6%, according to the school’s website. 

But Turcke’s experiences made her doubt whether the SAT truly reflects academic ability. 

“The SAT is not nearly as much about intelligence as it is about other factors … like economic standing and how much you’re willing to pay for test prep,” she said, pointing out that not all kids can afford to put in the time and money that she did. 

Education leaders have also been questioning the validity of college entrance exams. The state dropped requirements tied to the exams in March 2020, when COVID-19 sparked school closures. Since then, discussions on whether the exams are necessary, fair, or an accurate measure of ability have only intensified. 

The uncertainty surrounding college entrance exams has left parents and students in limbo about whether to invest time and effort in them – though some students don’t have much of a choice. Idaho’s economically disadvantaged students have fewer opportunities to prepare and practice for the exams and are more likely to earn lower SAT scores than their more affluent peers. 

While SAT and ACT test scores are losing their prominence and power, in some cases they can still open or close doors to scholarships, prestigious universities, and high-paying careers. And those factors can be life-changing. 

Education leaders are reconsidering the need for college entrance exams

Currently, none of Idaho’s four-year institutions (Boise State University, University of Idaho, Idaho State University, and Lewis-Clark State College) require college entrance exam scores for admissions. 

Mike Sharp, director of media relations for Boise State, said the university does not anticipate requiring testing scores for admissions in the foreseeable future (except for some applicants, like those who attended homeschool or a regionally unaccredited high school). 

“A national shift was underway pre-pandemic, with more colleges and universities examining the role, use and “weight” of standardized testing when making admissions decisions,” Sharp wrote in an email. “The pandemic hastened this work. … With more time and analysis, we’ve found that the first-year college outcomes of students who submitted standardized test scores are very similar to those who didn’t.” 

Idaho State is piloting an optional-scores admissions process through 2025.

“We just want to be able to review some data and see what test scores tell us. Are we seeing a difference in student preparedness and ability or not?” said Nicole Joseph, director of admissions at Idaho State. “We are always looking at ways to eliminate barriers to students being able to go on.”

The U of I has waived the testing for 2022 admissions and this fall will review whether to continue that policy, according to spokesperson Jodi Walker. She said the policy change over the last few years has not led to more admissions, but it has led to an increase in applications.

But it’s not just universities that have relaxed college entrance exam requirements. 

In February, the State Board of Education permanently dropped college entrance exams as a statewide high school graduation requirement, though individual districts can choose to require them.

The State Board decided to drop the exam requirement because it wasn’t improving Idaho’s go-on rate, according to spokesperson Mike Keckler. In fact, Idaho’s go-on rate has dropped to 37%, a number that has steadily declined since 2017. 

But the question remains about how many districts will require the exams as graduation requirements anyway. 

As of now, a State Department of Education survey shows that more than 14,700 students will be required by their districts to take a college entrance exam, according to spokesperson Maggie Reynolds. However, only half of the state’s school districts are represented in the survey, so the data is incomplete.

Janet Avery, the superintendent of Potlatch School District, said her board hasn’t discussed it yet, but she thinks it should be up to students and their parents to decide whether to participate in standardized testing. 

“College and career aspirations should be taken into account when making that decision,” she said. “If a student is planning on going to a university they need to look at the university they’re going to attend and see if it is a requirement. If not, they need to weigh whether the information they’ll get from that test will be helpful or not.” 

Douglas Howell, the superintendent of Pocatello/Chubbuck School District, said he is holding discussions with administrators about their preferences going forward. 

“We’re seeing what people think,” he said. 

Regardless of whether districts make college entrance exams a graduation requirement, the state will continue to pay for SAT testing, according to Keckler. 

In 2022, 21,191 students took the SAT, racking up a bill of $935,484 in taxpayer dollars.

Kids and parents are in limbo, but some still move mountains to prepare for exams

With all the changes regarding SAT and ACT requirements, where does that leave families? Do these tests matter for their students? Is it worth preparing and studying for these?

For Karen Hudelson, Turcke’s mother, the answer is yes. 

“I think in the current climate of college admissions, even at schools where it’s test is optional, (test scores) can make a difference from what I’ve heard and researched,” Hudelson said. “I think a huge problem is there’s so much grade inflation at a lot of high schools, where the top 150 kids all have unweighted 4.0s. It’s so hard to distinguish yourself at the top that a higher test score can make you stand out.” 

That’s why Hudelson decided to enroll Turcke and her younger daughter, Caroline Turcke, in test prep programs from Huntington Learning Center and Mindfish Test Prep & Academics. The private companies offer SAT tutoring programs that can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars. 

Brian Riddick, the owner of the Huntington Learning Center franchise in Boise, said that SAT scores are still tied to some scholarships, so it is worthwhile for a student to invest $3,500 on a SAT prep program if it will yield a $25,000-per-year scholarship later on. 

Riddick said that students in his program typically see a 250-280 point improvement on the SAT and a 6 point improvement on the ACT. 

However, he acknowledged that there’s been a decline in demand for ACT and SAT prep tutoring since the pandemic. In 2019, his center enrolled 230 students in test prep programs. In 2021, that number dropped to 137. 

Bill Huston, the co-founder and owner of Mindfish, pointed to similar trends and said his business’s growth stalled a bit during the pandemic. The tutoring company is primarily based in Colorado, but has a branch in Boise as well. 

“The college admissions landscape is still very much in flux,” he said. 

Some universities have started requiring tests again, such as Georgetown, MIT, the University of Tennessee and the University of Georgia, Huston said. Some, like the University of Florida, have continued to require test scores even through the pandemic. The University of California, on the other hand, has gone test-blind, meaning it will not accept, look at, or consider test scores. 

Yet even in the murky waters of college entrance exams, students are still enrolling in Mindfish’s SAT programs. Huston said his company has worked with about 60 Idaho students this year so far.

For those who do well on tests, SAT or ACT scores in an application are just one more positive data point a test-required or test-optional school can use when making a decision. And Huston argues that there are more benefits to enrolling in his test prep programs than improved scores (Huston said students who enroll in his programs have an average SAT score improvement of 150 points and an average ACT score improvement of 4 points). 

“Even in a test-optional world, it’s important for students to become confident test-takers,” he said. “Students are going to keep taking tests, whether graduate admissions, finals, or licensure. When they learn to become good test-takers early in their academic journeys, we’ve found that to be really powerful for a lot of kids.”

More affluent students have more — and some say better — test prep opportunities

Those who offer private tutoring say it’s much better than private public options, but it comes at a cost that would be a hurdle for economically disadvantaged students. 

Huntington’s SAT tutoring programs range in price from $1,200 to $3,500, or a student could pay a $79 hourly rate. 

Maggie’s Place, a childcare and tutoring center with branches in Pocatello and Idaho Falls, had similar pricing. 

Huntington, Maggie’s Place, and Mindfish try to assist economically disadvantaged students by offering free resources, discounts or scholarships when possible. 

And then there are the free options. 

Khan Academy, for example, is a nonprofit educational organization that focuses on “supporting students from low-income communities and students of color,” according to its website. The website offers free preparation and practice for the SAT and ACT, as well as other academic support. 

And school districts often embed test prep instruction in their classes and/or offer test prep classes on campus. 

But proponents of private testing say those free options aren’t the same. In classrooms, teachers with large class sizes may not be able to give the individualized assistance on a regular basis that students might need, said Sheryl Gittings, the managing director for Maggie’s Place. 

“Parents came to us and just said students need more help and attention than they can get at school,” she said. 

As for Khan Academy, Riddick said it is a good tool for those who are self-motivated, but many are not. Huston would agree.

“Khan is the equivalent to trying to learn to play the guitar with YouTube videos,” Huston said. “In both cases, there’s really no substitute for having an expert tutor, coach, or guitar teacher to guide them through.”

Idaho Education News reached out to Khan Academy for comment twice but did not receive a response. According to its website, “use of Khan Academy was positively associated with better than predicted test scores.”

But the question of equity is pressing.

“I’m not trying to deny that testing and test prep plays a role in diversity, equity, and inclusion, but there are bigger issues around equity beyond test prep and we need to look at all of them critically,” Huston said.

For example, Huston said that not all students have equal access to rigorous high school classes. Affluent schools also tend to offer more support from their counseling staff in terms of test prep, refining college essays and resumes, and other skills. 

Economically disadvantaged students tend to earn lower scores on the SAT than their more affluent peers

A common critique of the ACT and SAT exams has been that they exacerbate economic divides. 

Eva Craner, a spokesperson for Twin Falls School District, concurs and said that “poverty typically correlates with student achievement.” 

The data supports her conclusion (see above chart).

The Idaho schools with the most economically disadvantaged students tend to score below the state average on the SAT exam. In Idaho in 2020-21, 48 schools serving juniors were CEP schools or had 50% or more of their students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Of the 37 schools that had available SAT data, only three (or 8.1%) had average SAT scores that fell above the state average.

The opposite is true as well – the Idaho schools with the least economically disadvantaged students tend to score above the state average on the SAT exam. In 2020-21, 11 Idaho schools serving juniors had 15% or fewer students who qualified for free or reduced-price meals. Of those 11 schools, 10 (or 90.9%) beat the state average on the SAT.

The disparity could be caused by a number of factors. 

On top of not being able to afford private test prep programs, economically disadvantaged students are also less likely to be able to pay for SAT or ACT retakes, which could boost their scores. 

Then there are home lives to consider. A student who works or babysits siblings to support their family has less time to study or prepare for tests. Students also may lack a safe, clean space to study and/or family members who would support and encourage such efforts. 

But in at least one Idaho district, a dedicated teacher was able to help break down socioeconomic barriers to SAT success.

In one economically disadvantaged school district, a committed teacher helped spur student achievement 

In 2021, 58.8% of Culdesac School’s students qualified for free or reduced-price meals. Usually, schools with 50% or more students qualifying for subsidized meals perform below the state average on SAT tests. However, Culdesac was an outlier. Its students scored above the state average in both math and evidence-based reading and writing — one of only three of the 37 economically disadvantaged districts to do so. 

Their secret is Shelly Romine, an English and Spanish teacher who incorporated standardized test prep into her classes. 

“I’ve always worked in schools that are impoverished,” she said. “It’s important for me to be able to show these students that there is a different life possible and that life comes through education.”

Romine usually gives her students practice tests at the beginning, middle, and end of the year. After each test, she sits with each student and discusses their results. She then asks them to make a goal to achieve on their next practice test. For every student who achieves their goal, there’s a reward. 

Last year around Christmas, the reward was a party in which the students dressed up in costumes and played as various characters as they tried to solve a mystery. At the end of the year, the reward was a pool party. 

But Romine said the students came to appreciate the intrinsic rewards that came with improving on tests, like a sense of pride or newfound academic confidence. 

Romine also teaches testing strategies in addition to content knowledge and incorporates a daily standardized test question that students work together to solve. 

“One thing I did with most of my students was teach them how to answer the questions, just teach them to recognize question types and how to answer them, and then all these light bulbs went on,” she said. 

Romine’s students also benefit from a small class size – her average is about eight students per class. And of course, Romine’s dedication to her students helps. 

“When you have students who are dealing with not knowing whether there will be dinner on the table or parents coming home … a lot of them don’t feel any hope,” she said. “I think you can give them one little piece of hope and that’s education that’s going to open the door for them.” 

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

Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro

Reporter Carly Flandro works in EdNews’ East Idaho bureau. A former high school English teacher, she writes about teaching, learning, diversity, and equity. You can follow Flandro on Twitter @idahoedcarly and send her news tips at [email protected].

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