Virginia has a strong college system — but many low-income, high-achieving students don’t get the same access to that system if they don’t have a chance to take the SAT or ACT.

New research from the University of Virginia’s economics department examines the impact of a universal testing strategy in the state, one in which every public school offered high school students a chance to take the PSAT and SAT.

“We estimate that universal testing in Virginia could increase the number of high school graduates with test scores competitive for admission at broad-access universities in the state by as much as 40% — and at the most selective institutions by nearly 20% — with larger increases for low-income students,” wrote researchers Sarah Turner and Emily Cook in a new study, published Tuesday.

Based on an analysis of the grades of 2014 high school graduates who did not take the SAT, a universal testing mandate would lead an additional 32,900 students to take the test. Of those students, the researchers estimated, many would score high enough to qualify for top state schools such as the College of William & Mary and UVa.

Several states already offer the SAT to students through a contract with the College Board. Others contract to offer the ACT.

As an economics professor at UVa, Sarah Turner said she was interested in the challenge of predicting the outcomes of a universal test strategy across Virginia. She was also motivated, she said, by several stories from her own students about how difficult it could be to take standardized tests.

“I had lunch with two students, one of whom was from Loudoun County, where testing was basically universal,” Turner said. “And the other student at lunch with me was from a very rural, southeastern Virginia county, and she went on to explain that it was really the exception to take a college placement test, and that she had to really go through extraordinary lengths to do so.”

That variation was typical across the state, the researchers found: Some affluent, urban areas offered tests to all students, while rural and low-income localities typically did not.

“Differences in college admission test-taking by family circumstances may ultimately contribute to inequality in college application, college-going, and long-term economic outcomes,” they wrote in the study.

Offering the test to more students might smooth out those differences, the researchers wrote, though they also caution that it would not solve all issues and that the tests themselves are imperfect tools for gauging a student’s intelligence and college readiness.

A universal testing mandate would increase the number of low-income, non-black students scoring above 1000 on the SAT by over 80%; the number of low-income, black students by roughly 40%; and the total of all other students would rise by approximately 30%. Potentially high-scoring non-takers are also disproportionately likely to reside in small districts, according to the study.

“That was a number that surprised me — the number of non-black, disadvantaged students who are missing out on the test,” said Cook, who is a doctoral student of economics.

Most universities require scores from one or both standardized tests during the application process, but the tests can also have a big impact on whether students are aware of their college options at all.

Many universities buy data from the College Board and other test agencies and send information and scholarship offers to subsets of students. As universities increase the resources devoted to recruiting minority students, Turner said, they will miss out if minority students aren’t present in databases.

“They help families know about potential college options,” Turner said. “And they also serve as a diagnostic function and give students and families options about what colleges and levels of school they should be looking for.”

Even if districts don’t implement a universal testing strategy, they added, policies that still encourage testing among students with good grades could produce nearly the same results.

Some 47 public high schools in Virginia offer the SAT free of charge, according to The Washington Post.

Albemarle County Public Schools offers the PSAT during the school day free of charge to 10 and 11th graders, according to a spokesman. The district also administers the SAT on Saturdays.

“There certainly are no downsides to offering SAT tests to students, although it raises the question as to whether other tests also should be included, such as the ACT or the College Workforce Readiness Assessment,” said the division’s spokesman, Phil Giaramita.

Charlottesville City Schools offers the PSAT during the school day and free of charge to 10th and 11th graders. For the past two years, the district has also piloted a program where the SAT is offered during the school day, with test fees waived for some students, according to Charlottesville High School Principal Eric Irizarry.

The program “had a good response,” Irizarry said, particularly for students in the school’s Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, program. He said he hasn’t evaluated whether it would be an option to broaden the offering to more students, but he would be open to the idea.

“Our students aren’t really coming in on an equal footing, so anything we can do as a school and district to break down barriers and make it possible for people who want to go to college, we’re willing to look at,” he said. “The place where we have the most control is the school day, and we can offer transportation and lunches, so it makes sense to look at testing during school hours.”

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Ruth Serven Smith is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact her at (434) 978-7254, rserven@dailyprogress.com or @RuthServen on Twitter.

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