Why requiring juniors to take the ACT or SAT is good policy

Back in 2014, the passage of House Bill 487 ushered in major changes to Ohio education policy, including new high school graduation requirements for 2018 and beyond. Among the new provisions was a requirement that all juniors take a college-admissions exam. Previously, only those students and families considering going to college forked over the money to take a test designed to measure college readiness. Starting this spring, however, Ohio joins several other states  in requiring 11th graders to take either the ACT or SAT (it’s up to districts to choose which one to administer). To offset the mandate’s expense, the state will pick up the tab on testing costs.

Despite recent calls for the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) to reduce state testing, there’s been little pushback about requiring 11th graders to take a college admission exam, probably because the results won’t be a significant part of the state accountability system. It could also be because folks have bigger fish to fry when it comes to fighting the new graduation requirements. Regardless, the statewide administration requirement, which some students have already started taking, is good education policy. Here are a few reasons why having juniors take the ACT or SAT is a good idea.

  1. Opening doors to postsecondary options. According to ACT, admittedly a self-interested source, many students who were not considering college have gone on to attend after earning an encouraging score as part of a statewide administration. Many of these students were from traditionally underrepresented groups—minority and low-income students. Data out of Kentucky corroborates ACT’s findings and show that college-going rates have improved since it became state law in 2008 to administer the ACT. Illinois has also experienced a similar increase in overall college enrollment.     
  2. Providing useful and easily comparable information. Both the ACT and the SAT offer national and state-specific annual reports about student results. But until now, these data were limited because they included only students who chose to take the assessments. Although Ohio’s performance compared to other states will probably drop because all students will be taking the test, communities across the state and education policy leaders will have a far more wide-ranging picture of students’ achievement. Comprehensive ACT/SAT results could also help identify achievement gaps, offer more details about growth (or lack thereof) over time, and serve as a comparison point for Ohio’s new end-of-course exams and national exams like NAEP. Schools and teachers could also use these data to intervene with students in need of remediation before they graduate—which could save students and their families both time and money.
  3. Helping improve alignment to the state accountability system. Although the state-funded administration of the ACT and SAT won’t be included as part of the state’s proficiency and growth components, there is a state report card indicator that takes these tests into account: the Prepared for Success component. For this component, districts are graded on an A-F scale based on a point system made up of a variety of measures, including points for each student who earns a remediation-free score on either the ACT or SAT. Prior to the statewide administration of these tests, districts were limited by the number of students who chose to take them. With the statewide administration, it’s possible that more students will achieve a remediation-free score and give a more accurate view of how well students are being prepared for life after high school.  

It’s important to note that although the state will pay for only one administration for each student, low-income students can still go through their high school counselor to access fee waivers to take both tests. This is good news—it means that like their more affluent peers, low-income students will still have the opportunity to take college admissions tests multiple times. Furthermore, although waivers have long been available to low-income students, the process of obtaining one, or simply being unaware such waivers even existed, could have prevented many low-income students from signing up to take the test. Statewide administration ensures that everyone will have the opportunity to take the exam at least once.

As with any policy, there’s always room for improvement. Right now, the state-funded administration doesn’t include the writing component for either test. This is worrisome not just because writing is perhaps the most important skill needed for college success, but also because some schools include the writing portion as part of their application requirements. This means that students who otherwise would have taken the test only once must take it again in order to complete the writing portion. That seems incredibly wasteful in an era where we are debating over-testing. The benefits of statewide administration—greater awareness for students and more and better data—are lessened by the fact that the state doesn’t fund the writing component.

It’s imperative that policy makers move quickly to fund the full ACT and SAT assessments, not just parts of them. But in the meantime, Ohio has finally joined the ranks of 24 other states that are implementing this important policy. Statewide administration opens doors for all students, including traditionally underrepresented groups and those that may doubt their potential—and that’s definitely worth celebrating. 

Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an education policy analyst in the Fordham Institute’s Columbus office. She was a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked and taught in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District.