BOISE, Idaho — After a decade of mandatory SAT testing for Idaho high school students, state officials are looking to do away with the graduation requirement — forever.
In an interview with Idaho News 6 on Tuesday, state superintendent of public instruction Sherri Ybarra described the SAT as a "high stakes graduation requirement" — meaning students must take otherwise they do not graduate.
However, this requirement became increasingly difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic when schools across the country canceled in-person testing due to safety concerns.
"We realized that it wasn't safe to have all the kids in one space, without social distancing and taking all those safety protocols," Ybarra said. "So, we had to suspend it for one year."
Then Ybarra and other State Board of Education members waived Idaho's SAT requirements again in Fall 2020, Spring 2021, Fall 2021, and through this summer.
What's more, Ybarra said most of Idaho's two- and four-year postsecondary institutions no longer require SAT scores to be admitted.
"So, we have explored removing that high-stakes graduation requirement altogether," she said.
The SAT is a standardized test taken internationally by high school students that evaluates their reading, writing, and math skills. Once an essential component for every college application, many postsecondary institutions have moved away from requiring SAT scores for admission.
The College of Idaho has had a "test-optional" admission process for about six years, Vice President of Enrollment Manager Brian Bava told Idaho News 6. Bava said students could submit college entrance exam scores or two other creative projects through the alternative process.
"For us as admissions professionals, we're seeing more than just kind of what's on paper. We're seeing a different lens that you wouldn't necessarily see otherwise," he said. "Over the years, it's been really fun to watch how students' take that medium, make it their own, and convey something about themselves."
Students can pick two of these four projects to submit alongside traditional application materials:
- An additional writing sample
- A photo collage with an explanatory description
- A short video answering a prompt
- A proposal for a community service project
Over the last few years, Bava said the number of incoming first-year students utilizing the test-optional application process has grown — from about 12% to over 30%. Bava said the college had seen students who have opted for the alternative admissions process succeed and their peers.
"One of the things that we've found from our analysis is that the student's high school GPA and the courses that they take are a far better predictor of success here at the college than a standardized test score," he said.
As more students have struggled to complete a college-entrance exam due to COVID-19 restrictions, Bava says more postsecondary institutions have opened alternative admissions programs like the College of Idaho.
"What we're doing with standardized testing is make it so that if a student submits a standardized test score, it can only help them. It can't hurt them," he said. "I think that's an approach that a number of schools have taken across the country because they're sympathetic to the challenges that students have had."
According to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, nearly 80% of bachelor's degree-granting institutions will not require SAT scores for fall 2022.
"I think for years ... so much was placed on the standardized test score, that really highly qualified students didn't test well and were deemed inadmissible," Bava said. "I think we benefited from already being a test-optional institution and having a few years of data to support some of the changes we were when everyone was going test-optional across the country."
THE SAT IN IDAHO
Idaho first started requiring high school students to take the SAT in 2012 when officials saw the test as a means to boost the state's "go-on" rate.
A decade ago, the state set a goal that by 2020 60% of Idaho's young adults would have a postsecondary education. According to the online document, paying for every Idaho high school senior to take the SAT was one of the steps to meet that goal.
Ybarra said the state's decision to end the SAT requirement does not mean they have given up on reaching that 60% goal. However, the state total of high school seniors that continued their education at a two- or four-year institution dropped in 2021 for a second time since the pandemic started.
"We as a state board are continuing those conversations about what we want that 60% go-on rate to look like. But, I am sensitive to the public when they are saying that we have had too much of a focus on college prep," she said. "We want to make sure that we're looking at offering career technical education to our students as well."
Per the 2012 decision, the state pays for every Idaho high school senior to take the SAT. Ybarra says she hopes that provision will remain if the Idaho legislature votes to end the state's SAT graduation requirement. She said that part of her 2022 public schools' budget includes line items to keep the funding.
"One of my main priorities is to make sure that we have resources for our students," Ybarra said. "I want to make sure that resource stays in place so that students can make that decision at any time in their lives to either pursue higher education or a different career path."
According to the College Board, which administers the international test, the SAT will move entirely virtual by 2024. College Board officials said high school seniors would use their laptops or tablets while sitting for the test in-school or at a monitored testing site. She also anticipated that districts would continue to offer in-school testing days for interested students.
If the SAT were to become optional, Ybarra said she has heard from some people that it could boost the overall state scores — but she believes it is just speculation.
In 2021, Idaho SAT scores declined slightly in math and evidence-based reading and writing.
"A lot of students and a lot of parents have said that motivation is a factor in our SAT scores," Ybarra said. "When you're more motivated to do something, you may perform better. So, we may see our SAT scores increase when we move to make this (optional)."
The legislature is in the process of reviewing the state board's recommendation to remove Idaho's SAT requirement.