Test Prep

Study: Free Testing Could Boost Number, Diversity of College Applicants


Offering free SAT or ACT testing in high schools could lead to a larger number -- and more diverse mix -- of graduating seniors considering and applying to colleges, according to a new study published in AERA Open, an online journal of the American Educational Research Association.

The study, entitled “Missed Exams and Lost Opportunities: Who Could Gain from Expanded College Admission Testing?", focused on high schools in Virginia, but drew a more general conclusion that could be extrapolated to all states: “When students with the capacity to succeed in a four-year college do not take a college admission test, this represents a potential loss of opportunity for students and colleges alike."

Here's What the Study Discovered

Specifically, the study found that universal testing (offering the SAT or ACT for free) in Virginia could increase the number of high school graduates with test scores that are competitive for admission at broad-access universities in the state up to 40 percent, and almost 20 percent at the most selective institutions, with even larger increases for low-income students.

Free standardized testing for high school students would especially be a boon to students from low income families, since the SAT and ACT cost upwards of $50. Lower-income students often cannot afford the registration fees for the SAT or ACT and may not have even considered attending or applying to colleges.

Experts have also pointed out that when a student takes the SAT or ACT, their contact information and academic background becomes available to colleges. Students who don't take either test often get overlooked by college recruiters, regardless of their potential.

“Our work reinforces the work of other studies, which show that there are a substantial number of students well-positioned to enroll in college who miss the key step of taking a college admission test," said study coauthor Sarah E. Turner, who is a professor of economics and education at the University of Virginia. “Students from low-income families and those in relatively small districts are most likely to be absent from college admission testing."

At one of the 47 Virginia high schools that did offer the SAT for free last year, the principal told the Washington Post that several of his students indicated they were surprised at how well they scored. And in fact, the study authors estimated that if all the students who had scored at or above the 40th percentile on Virginia's eighth grade standardized state testing had also taken the SAT in high school, those students would have included about 89 percent of the observed non-takers predicted to score 1000 or higher on the SAT.

So far, the SAT and ACT are offered for free in a total of 25 states. Over one million high school students across 15 states, Washington, D.C., and more than 250 school districts were able to take the SAT for free during the 2018-2019 school year, according to the College Board. The ACT is currently offered for free by high schools in 19 states.