In summary

A bill under consideration in the California legislature would allow local school boards to replace standardized tests given in 11th grade with a college entrance exam like the SAT or ACT.

(End-of-session update: The governor vetoed Assembly Bill 1951 on Sept. 28, suggesting that California’s public universities should instead begin using Smarter Balanced test results in admissions decisions.)

The SAT may be an important hurdle in the college admissions process, but until recently it was one that many students in the Long Beach Unified School District weren’t clearing. Fewer than half of 11th graders in the working-class district were even attempting the test.

Registration fees, at $60 for the full test including essay, posed a challenge for some families in a district where more than two thirds of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Other students just didn’t see themselves as college material.

Then three years ago, the district began offering the SAT for free during the school day. The move boosted the SAT-taking rate to nearly 100 percent and, district officials say, created a more college-oriented culture among students.

Now a Long Beach legislator is trying to make it easier for other California districts to follow the city’s lead. Assembly Bill 1951, sponsored by Democratic Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell, would allow local school boards to replace the standardized tests typically given in students’ junior year with a nationally-recognized college entrance exam like the SAT or ACT.

“This bill is about equity and opportunity for high school students,” said O’Donnell, a former classroom teacher who chairs the Assembly’s Education Committee. “It’s also about local control. It lets districts decide the best assessment for students.”

Students from low-income families can currently take the SAT or ACT free of charge, but must obtain fee waivers from their schools. Attending a school that doesn’t offer the test could mean traveling to an unfamiliar neighborhood on a Saturday to take it. While those barriers might seem small, backers of the proposal say they can add up for some students.

The bill would let school districts use the funds they already spend on standardized testing to subsidize college entrance exams, as long as they offer them free to all students and make accommodations for English language learners and students with disabilities. The state superintendent could approve either the SAT, the ACT or both as an alternative to districts that want to make the switch.

Long Beach Unified covers the cost for students to take the practice PSAT in grades 8 through 10, and connects students who register for the SAT to online tutorials from Khan Academy. The district also provides free, optional SAT prep sessions on Saturdays—an extra edge that historically has been available only to students from wealthier families.

“The whole idea that you can diagnose strengths and areas where improvement is needed, and make better use of time and resources, is a game-changer,” said district spokesperson Chris Eftychiou. “And it’s especially a game-changer when parents who might be working two or three jobs to put food on the table don’t have to pay for these services.”

Long Beach Unified has tried once before to exempt itself from giving the Smarter Balanced tests the state currently requires for all 11th graders.

Those customized, computer-based tests were adopted in 2015 to align with the state’s Common Core educational standards in math and English. Advocates said they would more precisely gauge students’ ability levels and progress, and the California State University system has used them to help judge whether test-takers were ready for college-level courses. But the annual release of Smarter Balanced results has also been used to highlight which schools and districts have made little or no progress in improving academic achievement.

In a letter to the state Board of Education last year, Long Beach Superintendent Christopher Steinhauser asked for “relief from unnecessary, duplicative testing.” The SAT, he argued, was far more relevant to college admissions. Removing the Smarter Balanced tests would give students more time to focus on it and the Advanced Placement exams that also factor into colleges’ decisions.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and board President Michael Kirst disagreed. The SAT had not been reviewed to ensure it reflected Common Core standards, they wrote in a response. It “is not designed to measure the lower end of the spectrum well” and could disadvantage English language learners and students with disabilities. Request denied.

Torlakson hasn’t yet taken a formal position on AB 1951, but said in a statement to CALmatters that “further research is needed, as these tests were not designed for this purpose….We need to ensure these tests are accessible to all students and address other concerns before California considers their use.”

More than 30 districts in California will this year give the SAT for free during the school day. That’s up from four in 2015. Those districts could opt out of Smarter Balanced testing in 11th grade if the bill is signed into law. Some districts have come out in support of the bill, including San Jose Unified and Sacramento City Unified.

The chair of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, Jose Medina, is also on board. O’Donnell says he hopes to bring the bill up for a committee hearing in late March. A previous version passed the committee last session but never made it to a floor vote.

One question the state would need to answer: At a time when school accountability has become an obsession, how would it compare student performance among districts that choose the SAT or ACT, and those that stick with Smarter Balanced?

“From a parent perspective, having my daughters take multiple tests creates a disconnect and is inefficient,” said Samantha Dobbins Tran, senior managing director for education at Children Now, an advocacy group that has supported the Common Core standards. “It comes down to, do you create a context where we don’t have the data for accountability purposes? That’s going to lead to huge concerns from an equity perspective.”

A growing number of states, including Illinois, Michigan, Maine and Colorado, require the SAT or ACT for high school graduation. Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, some of those states have received permission to forgo other standardized tests in favor of the college entrance exams.

Those changes came amid a push to expand college entrance testing on the part of the College Board, the powerful non-profit organization that administers both the SAT—which is more widely used in California than the ACT—and Advanced Placement exams.

The College Board earned $916 million in revenue in 2015 and spent nearly $130,000 lobbying California legislators last year. It’s been criticized for taking advantage of its market position to charge students fees for everything from late registrations to sending score reports to colleges. But it’s also taken some steps to make the tests more affordable, allowing low-income students to send unlimited score reports to schools for free starting this year.

Joshua Hyman, a researcher at the University of Connecticut, studied the effects of mandatory ACT tests in Michigan’s public high schools and found that it led to many more low-income students not only taking the test, but performing well.

“There’s a hidden group of high-achieving students that don’t even get to the point of taking these exams,” said Hyman.

Prior to the change, for every 10 low-income Michigan students who scored high enough to get into a selective four-year college, there were another five who would have done well but didn’t take the exam. Afterward, Hyman found, the state saw a small bump in the number of disadvantaged students attending college.

Hyman acknowledged that test companies also profit when states increase the number of exam-takers. But he pointed out that providing the SAT or ACT costs less than many other efforts to reduce disparities in college attendance, such as providing more financial aid.

“This kind of policy is quite cheap and could level the playing field,” he said.

This story and other higher education coverage are being supported by College Futures Foundation.

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Felicia Mello covers the state's economic divide. Prior to this role, she was editor for CalMatters' College Journalism Network, a collaboration with student journalists across California to cover higher...