This post is part of an occasional series examining how California can learn from policies in other states.
California ranks 47th out of the 50 states in the proportion of recent high school graduates that attend a four-year college. There are big recognizable barriers to attending a four-year college, such as cost. However, there are also smaller barriers—like taking a college entrance exam such as the SAT or ACT—that can keep students from even being eligible for entry to a four-year college.
Policy: Mandatory College Entrance Testing in High School
Several states have recently instituted statewide college entrance exams for high school students through allowances in the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which mandates that states test their students for accountability purposes. The ESSA allows states to use college entrance tests as their high school tests. Students in states that use college entrance exams have one less hurdle to college eligibility, as well as experience taking the test and a signal of their level of college readiness. These benefits could help students make their way to a four-year college. Does the policy work?
Because many states are only recently requiring a college entrance exam, there has not been enough time to analyze long-term trends. However, a 2015 study by Daniel Klasik evaluates the college-going behavior of students in three states (Illinois, Colorado, and Maine) that have long required all students to take national college entrance exams in high school. The study shows that statewide college enrollment may not necessarily increase, but students may have enrolled in different types of institutions than they otherwise would have. In Illinois and Maine the entrance exam policy was associated with a shift in enrollment away from public two-year colleges, which generally don’t require entrance exams; Illinois saw increases in four-year college attendance. Students in Maine and Colorado were more likely to enroll in institutions that required entrance exams for admission. All three states saw a positive impact on attendance at private four-year colleges.
Lessons for California
California currently uses the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) tests, which students take in grades 3-8 and 11. Of the fifteen states in SBAC, six use a college exam for federal accountability for their high schools and another three states require (and pay for) all students to take a college exam in addition to their normal state test.
The trend is catching on in California. Right now only 60% of students take the SAT, but several California districts are offering the test free to all students. In fact, Long Beach Unified School District recently asked the state if it could replace the SBAC test with the SAT, citing similar schoolwide accountability scores and the additional college-going benefits. The state declined, citing concerns about alignment with the Common Core State Standards, the ability of the SAT to accurately assess lower-performing students, and accommodations for students with limited English proficiency or learning disabilities.
But mandatory college entrance exams could remove a barrier to college entry for California students. As we have examined in prior research, the SBAC tests already link high school testing to college readiness at the California State University (CSU) and some community colleges through the Early Assessment Program. However, the University of California and many private schools still require a college entrance exam score. And while CSU does not require an entrance exam for all students, it does require an ACT or SAT score for students with GPA that is below 3.0 and for those applying to some impacted campuses or majors.
A statewide entrance exam program may not solve all of California’s enrollment issues—in part because California’s master plan limits entry to public universities and many campuses are not currently able to accept all qualified applicants. California could still benefit if the policy increases enrollment at four-year private schools, as students starting at four-year institutions are generally more likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree than those who start at a community college. In a state that is facing a 1.1 million degree gap by 2030, removing barriers to college entry is an important step toward producing more college graduates.