Fresno Unified is among a dozen school districts in California now offering the SAT for free in an attempt to break barriers that prevent students from taking the test.
Nearly 3,000 Fresno Unified juniors across the district’s high schools took the college entrance exam in April at no cost during the school day. In the past, tests could only be taken at designated testing centers and typically on the weekends – making it harder for students who may not have access to transportation or a parent available.
“If we have kids take the SAT on Saturday, we lose kids to whatever else goes on on the weekend – to sleeping in or working to put food on the table for their families. Now we have a captive audience. We have to knock down barriers because being poor puts our kids at an extreme disadvantage,” Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson said. “This time, we didn’t pay for it, and neither did the kids. And we think that’s the wave of the future. We’re trying to level the playing field.”
This is the first time the district has waived testing fees and administered the test, thanks to a partnership with The College Board – the national organization that oversees the SAT. While low-income students have long been able to receive individual testing fee waivers, it involves a process, and the fee can only be waived twice.
Hanson said the new program is especially important in Fresno Unified, where nearly 90 percent of students qualify for free and reduced price lunch.
We’re trying to level the playing field.
Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson
“Once our kids have been identified as living in poverty … we don’t need to keep saying to them that they need to keep filling out forms declaring their poverty,” he said. “It’s silly, and it takes time and energy and computer access they might not have.”
In addition to free testing, Fresno Unified students also have access to free SAT practice tests. The online practice courses are offered through Khan Academy and identify which subjects students struggle with, then provide them with more questions focusing on that area.
The tests are also allowing the district to see which students have the potential to pass Advanced Placement courses, which can earn them college credit before they leave high school.
“There’s a lot of study time that goes into preparing yourself for the future. The bottom line is the SAT still matters a lot. It wasn’t too long ago that the only prep you could do was going to Barnes and Noble and buying a big book, and it wasn’t cheap. That was if you had the means, which very few of our kids do,” Hanson said.
“Now we can find kids that have potential that we would’ve never seen. We’re able to get more students, especially students of color and poverty, into AP classes. We’re not just relying upon kids or parents to volunteer or waiting for teachers’ referrals.”
When the test scores are released in the coming weeks, the district, alongside Long Beach Unified, will analyze how the data matches up with state standardized tests “to figure out what SAT scores actually mean,” Hanson said.
“We want the federal test to be one that really matters and counts for something. We don’t want to be giving tests just to give tests,” he said. “Students want to know, ‘How does this affect my future?’ This is going to change the face of college prep for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, across the country.”