OPINION: Encourage all high schoolers to retake the SAT

Yasmin Davis | Daily Trojan

College application season is quickly approaching, and with admission rates plummeting among selective colleges across the country, high school students are cracking open SAT study guides and getting comfortable. However, while the SAT is a standardized exam, recent research shows the playing field is far from level.

In a working paper released in August, “Take Two! SAT Retaking and College Enrollment Gaps,” researchers Joshua Goodman, Oded Gurantz and Jonathan Smith collected data on over 10 million students who took the SAT from the high school classes of 2006 to 2014 to evaluate the effect of retaking the exam on college prospects. On average, taking the SAT a second time improved admissions-relevant super scores by roughly 90 points out of 2,400, with the biggest improvement among low scorers. Doing so made students more likely to enroll in a four-year (as opposed to two-year) institution. The reality is, though, while half of SAT-takers sit for the exam more than once, low-income and underrepresented minority students are far less likely to take it a second time than white, Asian American and affluent students. In fewer words, they are more likely to miss out on the 90-point bump that could easily be the difference between an acceptance and a rejection.  

Retaking the SAT increases four-year college enrollment by an average of 13 percentage points, particularly for low-income and underrepresented minority students. Because four-year colleges often have higher graduation rates, sitting for the exam more than once actually is correlated with both getting into college and getting a degree.

Those who do not retake the SAT miss out on that boost. It turns out, though, that most of them are already limited in other ways: Students with a family income over $100,000 are 21 percent more likely to retake the SAT than students with a family income below $50,000, according to the paper.

Low-income and underrepresented minority students are less likely to get high scores and enroll in a four-year college to begin with, meaning the consequences of only taking the exam once are more substantial for them. It is a vicious cycle; those who start ahead, stay ahead, and those who were held back right away stay behind.

In fact, the paper suggests that eliminating disparities in retake rates could close up to 20 percent of the gap in four-year college enrollment between poor and affluent students who take the SAT, and up to 10 percent of the gap between white students and those who are black, Hispanic or Native American.

It is important to get to the core of why these retake discrepancies exist in the first place and why those who would benefit most from retaking the SAT rarely get to. Earlier research has clearly shown that information about the enrollment process is a key factor of gaps in college enrollment. Recently, a study at the University of Pittsburgh indicated that low-income and underrepresented minority students get less help in navigating the difficult application process; they tend to overestimate costs, miss crucial deadlines and not apply to selective colleges they are qualified to attend.

There are disparities in information and resources that permeate the application process, and such disparities likely contribute to retake rates, too. The College Board, which administers the test, offers fee waivers that let eligible students take the SAT twice and send their scores to colleges at no cost. It is imperative that these shortcuts both exist and are marketed toward the students who need them most, but the low retake rates show that they have barely made a dent.

The College Board should make a concerted effort to offer transparent and universal access, and go the extra mile for the demographics that would benefit from a push.

The paper showed that over 40 percent of minority SAT-takers first took the test in the 12th grade, compared with under 20 percent of white and Asian American students. If students are encouraged to take their first SAT earlier, they would in turn have more time to retake the exam, improve their scores and strengthen their applications. It is far from a permanent solution, but certainly a step to leveling the playing field.

Alternatively, a number of states have started offering the SAT or ACT during school hours at no cost and requiring students to take it. A study examining the effect of mandatory college entrance exams found an increase in four-year enrollment for students who were low-income or who were less likely to take the exam in the absence of the policy. Hopefully, these positive results will encourage states and school districts to offer opportunities for students to take (and retake) the SAT, free of cost.

Mitigating the gaps in college enrollment is a daunting, difficult task. However, when it comes to the specific matter of retaking the SAT, the reasons are clear, and the most effective way to combat structural oppression is with policy. The College Board must take responsibility as a key player in college applications, address its shortcomings and actively provide supplementary resources to low-income and underrepresented minority students.

There is a facade of objectivity that surrounds the SAT, and it is breaking down. It is time to account for the barriers that subtly and quietly hinder some students throughout the application process while they benefit others.