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Michigan legislation would de-emphasize SAT scores to boost college access

Joy James
Joy James, a recent graduate of Cass Technical High School, worries that her SAT scores may have held her back from some opportunities. (Photo by Di’Amond Moore / Detroit Free Press)

She earned A’s and B’s in all her classes, co-founded a group that supports Make-A-Wish Michigan, joined the Key Club, and volunteered to make lunches for Kids’ Food Basket, but it wasn’t enough to get her into her top-choice college.

Alyssa Green will always wonder if her SAT scores – disappointing, she says, but not terrible – are what kept her out of the University of California at Santa Barbara, the 30th-ranked national university with an acceptance rate of 30 percent.

Like more than 1,500 schools across the country, the university recently stopped considering standardized test scores for admissions, at least temporarily. But Michigan high schools still reported the scores on transcripts.

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“If it’s right in front of them it might still have some effect” on admissions decisions, said Green, 18, a recent graduate of East Grand Rapids High School who heads to the University of Colorado in the fall

The problem stems from a state law that requires schools to include Michigan Merit Exam results on student transcripts. For high school juniors, the SAT is part of the required assessment, and that score is reported on transcripts.

Republican state representatives have proposed dropping the scores from transcripts.

Sponsored by state Reps. Brad Paquette, R-Niles, Ben Frederick, R-Owosso, and David Martin, R-Davison, House Bills 4810 and 4811 are part of a national trend to shift schools’ emphasis on standardized tests to more holistic measures.

The bills have been awaiting action in the House Education Committee since May. Chair Pamela Hornberger, a St. Clair County Republican, did not respond to questions about if or when the committee might take up the legislation.

If it passes, Michigan would join states like Colorado, which made similar changes last year.

A related bill that also would de-emphasize SAT scores passed the Michigan Senate on Wednesday. It cleared the House in April and now heads to the governor’s desk. Sponsored by state Rep. Sarah Anthony, D-Lansing, the measure responds to obstacles students faced in scheduling testing during the pandemic.

Under Anthony’s bill, grades, not SAT scores, will determine 2020 and 2021 graduates’ eligibility for Michigan Competitive Scholarships.

The scholarship program provides up to $1,000 per year to students who demonstrate financial need and strong academic performance. Until now, the academic benchmark was a 1200 out of 1600 on the SAT. Nationally, 26 percent of students scored above 1200 last year, according to the College Board, which administers the test.

Anthony’s bill directs the Department of Treasury to decide on a new measure, such as grade point average.

The change could increase the number of eligible students, potentially raising the cost of the $29.9 million program, according to a Senate fiscal analysis. The analysis does not predict how many more students could become eligible.

“We had students across Michigan who – for no fault of their own – were not able to take the SAT,” Anthony said. “Many of the kids who would qualify for these scholarships really do need it. This could make all the difference for them.”

The SAT exemption in Anthony’s bill applies to 2020 and 2021 graduates but it could open the door to a permanent change and help other SAT bills awaiting consideration in the House Education Committee, including the ones sponsored by Paquette, Frederick and Martin.

Patrick O’Connor, college counselor and executive director of College Is Yours, hopes so. His organization advocates for public policies that improve access to higher education.

“Right now, Michigan public school students have no choice” about whether to show their SAT scores to the many colleges that don’t require them, O’Connor said.

“Once a test-optional school receives test scores they will be considered in the application,” he said. “The consensus among colleges is that they can’t see a bad test score.”

That may be true, but college admissions offices have enough integrity to disregard test scores on transcripts of students who indicate they don’t want them considered, said John Ambrose, director of undergraduate admissions at Michigan State University.

Universities such as Michigan State that have gone test optional have established equitable systems for decision making, he said.

“Does the state not trust admissions offices to make fair decisions when students have selected test optional?” he asked.

Michigan’s law applies only to public school transcripts.

“Private school students tend to enjoy a number of advantages in the college admission process already, and this clearly exacerbates the difficulties” for public school students, he said.

Recent Cass Technical High School graduate Joy James  said she scored above average but still “wasn’t 100 percent proud” of her SAT results as a junior. She planned to take SAT prep courses at her school and church and then retake the test in her senior year, but the pandemic derailed her plans. Her junior year scores stood. They were printed on transcripts sent with all her applications, even ones that didn’t require them.

“I had to stick with my score that I’m not pleased with,” said James, 18, of Detroit. “I felt like it could’ve held me back from certain schools and certain opportunities so I was anxious,” said James, headed to Wayne State University to study fashion merchandising.

Even if she had retaken the test and improved her original score, it would have remained on her transcript.

The Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals supports the legislation.

It used to make sense to have the scores there, said Wendy Zdeb, executive director. Because almost all colleges used to require SATs, having them printed on official school transcripts saved students from having to pay the College Board to send them – currently $12 per report after the first four, which are sent free.

“It was a positive intent” she said.

Admissions offices are realizing that standardized tests are a barrier to access for historically underrepresented groups in higher education, said FairTest Executive Director Bob Schaeffer.

“Test scores are correlated very highly with family income, parental education and socioeconomic status. Test scores have very strong racial correlations, and test scores are subject to inflation through high-priced coaching,” he said.

Admissions offices realize that the factors that really matter – such as self-discipline, communication skills and the ability to work with others – aren’t captured on standardized tests, Schaeffer said.

In Michigan, test-optional schools include the University of Michigan at Flint, Michigan State University, Wayne State University and 17 other colleges and universities.

“The system has changed. Now we have schools that are test optional” and sending scores with transcripts could harm students, said Deanna Green, Alyssa’s mother and a former Forest Hills guidance counselor.

If the legislation passes, the situation could be different for her son, Glenn, who will be a sophomore in the fall.

“If he applies to a test-optional school he doesn’t have to worry about it being on his transcript,” and if he does well on the SAT he can still request to have it put on his transcript, she said. “As it stands now, he has no choice.”

Tracie Mauriello reports for Bridge Michigan and Chalkbeat Detroit.

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