College and Career Readiness: College Admissions Exam Scores as Indicators

The United States Secretary of Education has recently sent feedback to States that have submitted their plans required by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). According to the new law, accountability plans must include academic indicators, such as annual assessments in English and math and other subjects, and non-academic indicators such as school quality. States are also required to display public-facing report cards that show how schools in each State are performing according to the accountability measures and goals set forth in the State plan. In fulfillment of Federal mandates, State Education Departments are constructing data dashboards that provide transparency and accountability to parents and other stakeholders.

One of the favorite factors of school quality among States is College and Career Readiness (CCR). The States are defining CCR in a variety of ways such as college admissions exams, Advanced Placement exams, and enrollment in an early college program or other post-secondary program.

Among the plans submitted to the U.S. Department of Education, States such as Delaware, Louisiana, Maine, Nevada, Tennessee the District of Columbia and others have referenced SAT or ACT as factors of school quality or academic achievement. Although four-year colleges require that students take the SAT or ACT, States that use college admissions exam scores as accountability measures require high school students to take the exam even if a student does not plan to go to college. For example, the state of Tennessee established the long-term academic goal that, by 2020, the average composite score on the ACT (or equivalent on the SAT) will be a 21. According the Tennessee Department of Education, student participation in the SAT or SAT is a graduation requirement for the 2017-2018 school year.

Pursuant to T.C.A. § 49-6-6001, all public school students must participate in a postsecondary readiness assessment such as the ACT or SAT. Districts may choose to administer the ACT or the SAT. Districts can also provide both assessments and allow their students to choose the assessment that is right for them.

College admissions exams were mandatory in some high schools even before States submitted their plans to the USDE. During the 2016-2017 school year, high school students in at least 25 states were required to take the SAT or ACT, and at least half of those States used college admissions exam scores for accountability reporting to the Federal government. College entrance exams even replaced other academic assessments, such as PARCC and Smarter Balanced were designed to align with Common Core State Standards.

See also ESSA Update – Federal Feedback and Funding Levels

SAT and ACT Scores as Indicators of College and Career Readiness

College admissions exams utilize a system of metrics; benchmarks for each academic year that students take the assessment. The methodology for determining “college readiness” is based on student success in entry-level college courses. Benchmarks for each section—Reading, Writing and Math—represent increasing levels of achievement for each grade level. The SAT benchmark scores represent a 75% likelihood of a student achieving at least a grade “C” or higher in the first semester in a corresponding credit-bearing college course whereas the ACT College Readiness Benchmark scores represent a level of achievement required for students to have a 50% change of obtaining a B or higher or a 75% chance of obtaining a C or higher in corresponding credit-bearing college courses.

Student scores are made available in an online reporting platform. States that utilize SAT or ACT exams as performance indicators will publish scores in public-facing report cards. In addition to State accountability measures, assessment data enables administrators, educators, students and parents to evaluate progress toward college readiness by tracking and measuring individual students’ academic growth over time. The score report provides performance summaries for each section (e.g. Reading, Writing and Math). Results are grouped by content area, skills set, and the level of difficultly which enables educators and students to see students’ strengths and areas that need improvement. Individual student test results are also compared with the percentile of other students.

Scores are released to educators through the k-12 score reporting portal. Administrators and educators use the data to identify the students that are exceeding and who are behind. The educator portal allows configuration of data sets and run reports. Educators may also download score data files and import them into the Student Information Systems. The information in the reports isolates strengths and weaknesses of individual students in each section. Educators and students can use this information to develop steps for improvement and to reach college and career goals. Students with accounts on platforms like College Board may also link their account with online test prep programs like Official SAT Practice on Khan Academy® and participate in customized practice with feedback relevant to their college and career readiness skills. Scores from the test prep program may report to the college test platform and teacher portals so that educators can help students prepare for success on the exam.

Cognitive & Emotional Impact and Student Test Performance

Gone are the “high-stakes” tests under NCLB, but students may place more pressure on themselves when taking college admissions exams resulting in physical and emotional side effects. The weight that students place on themselves, in combination with the demands of a rigorous and lengthy test, may trigger the threat-response mechanism that, in turn, impedes students’ test performance; otherwise known as “test anxiety.” Accelerated heart rate, inability to focus and negative self-talk affects how students apply what they know and are able to do during the test. According to Compass Education Group, specialists in test preparation, test anxiety is a neurological response to various stressors:

  • Students subconsciously make connections with prior history of poor test performance which heightens anxiety levels during the exam.
  • High-achieving students fear that an average test score will harm his or her identity as being a “smart” person.
  • Student excessively worry that the results of the exam will define his or her life trajectory in college and career.
  • Students that are of a minority group such as gender, race or socio-economic class, may fear that poor text performance will validate negative stereotypes.

Students scoring below the SAT benchmarks can still be successful in college, especially with additional preparation and perseverance. – College Board, SAT

Test scores alone are not always indicative of a students’ level of mastery and capabilities across subject areas. College Board offers this word of encouragement, “Students scoring below [college readiness] benchmarks can still be successful in college, especially with additional preparation and perseverance.” Due to factors such as test anxiety, students that outperform the majority of their peers in the classroom may underperform in state tests and, even more so, college admissions exams such as the ACT or SAT. For this reason, test preparation workshops are essential for students to feel at-ease during test time. Test anxiety toolkits may also help students manage the stress of test-taking and showcase their true level of preparedness for College and Career. For example, in Illinois, SAT scores will serve as indicators for the State’s accountability plan under ESSA, yet along with this plan, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) will also provide SAT workshops, training and professional development for educators who will administer the SAT. Educators may utilize data online test-prep programs to help students prepare for the rigorous exam.

Online assessment platforms often integrate with other services such as online test prep programs that require students to create accounts. Integration across platforms provides a seamless user experience. The data sets resulting from college admissions exams and even test prep programs are useful for school administrators, educators, parents and students in pinpointing areas of strength and weakness with the goal of reaching College and Career Readiness, yet the online assessment platform—and any other system that integrates with the platform—is subject to laws governing child identity and student data privacy. Moreover, schools and school district are subject to student data privacy laws such as FERPA. Even ESSA presents regulatory mandates regarding the personally identifiable information (PII) of students: Information collected, included or disseminated in report cards must be collected and disseminated in a manner that protects individual privacy in consistency with section 444 of the General Education Provisions Act, a.k.a. the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (20 U.S.C. 1232g) as well as Section 1111(h)(1)(i)(1) of ESSA.

See also Educational Data & Federal Policy

Student Identity Considerations

When utilizing college admissions exams as indicators of College and Career Readiness in the upcoming school year, State and Local Educational Agencies (schools and school districts), as well as operators of these online services, can maintain the health of student identity and ensure compliance with ESSA and other Federal regulations through identity management and compliance solutions such as i-SAFE Direct.

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