Starting this spring, Indiana's high school juniors will be required to take the SAT to meet state and federal accountability requirements.

But they don't have to pass it to graduate; they can choose to use it as part of their "Graduation Pathway" requirements, but there are many other options depending on their postsecondary plans and goals.

The state switched from its previous annual standardized exam, the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress (ISTEP), to the SAT as part of sweeping changes to graduation requirements in 2018, called Indiana Pathways, according to Chalkbeat Indiana.

The change goes into effect this school year for juniors in the class of 2023.

"The main difference is that [the SAT] is not tied to graduation as assessments have been in the past," said John Newport, curriculum coordinator with the Vigo County School Corp. "There is a loose tie, but it's not a requirement. It's not the only test."

Other options include a military aptitude test, an approved apprenticeship, state- and industry-recognized credentials or certifications, as well as the SAT or ACT. 

Under Graduation Pathways, students have to meet three components to graduate: earn a diploma by completing course requirements; learn and demonstrate employability skills through project-, service- or work-based learning experiences; and demonstrate postsecondary ready competencies through various options, one of which is the SAT. 

SAT as an accountability tool

According to Holly Lawson, Indiana Department of Education spokeswoman, as part of Indiana’s Graduation Pathways, students are able to create pathways that serve their educational interests and prepare them for their goals after high school.

High school juniors will take the SAT this spring, which serves as Indiana’s federal and state accountability assessment for math and English/language arts. The essay portion will not be included. 

"The SAT, however, is not a graduation requirement; therefore, no specific score on the SAT is required to graduate high school unless the student elects to pursue the SAT for his or her Graduation Pathway," Lawson stated in an email.

Cut scores will be set to determine pass rates after students take the test in the spring.

But for students not planning on college, where's the incentive to do well on the SAT and what does that mean for accountability purposes?

According to Lawson, following legislative action earlier this year through House Enrolled Act 1514, Indiana has separated a school’s performance rating from any formal state consequences, including state takeover of failing schools.

"Instead, this new law focuses on transparently highlighting school performance over multiple measures," Lawson said. Efforts are underway by state officials to develop a school performance dashboard to display these measures.

The new accountability system would include state and local dashboards and long-term school performance data. Schools would still receive a grade.

Another benefit to taking the SAT, Lawson said, is that students demonstrate their literacy and math skills, which can be used to help them gain placement in an apprentice program, a program to earn a high-value industry certification or credential and other options.

It also provides eligibility to scholarship opportunities. 

Legislators disagree on value of SAT for all juniors

State Rep. Tonya Pfaff, D-Terre Haute and a Vigo County high school math teacher, questions why all high school juniors must take a test they may not need for their post-graduation plans.

"As an educator, I am not sure what the point is to force students who are entering the military, trades or workforce to make them sit through a four-hour test that they know does not count for anything except checking a box," she said. "We are constantly teaching students to find their passion and pursue it; that is not necessarily a four-year institution."

Many colleges and junior colleges do not even require the SAT for admission to their programs, she said. "Again, mandating that students take a test that they have no desire to perform well on seems like a waste of time."

In the budget that was just passed this year, the General Assembly allocated $144.6 million dollars for 2022 and $153.5 million dollars in 2023 grants for career-technology education. Pushing all students to take a standardized college readiness test seems to be sending a mixed message, she said.

In addition, testing all juniors in the state of Indiana "is a huge expense and also results in loss of class time," Pfaff said. 

State Rep Bob Behning, chair of the House Education Committee, disagrees. He authored legislation that changed graduation requirements.

Studies show that students from low income backgrounds in many cases "have not taken the opportunity and do not understand they actually have the potential to be successful" in postsecondary education, he said.

Taking the free SAT their junior year "can help them realize aspirations that they thought were unreachable," he said. "I think there is more value in an assessment like the college board SAT than there was in ILEARN because there is more currency to it."

Also, federal law requires an assessment for accountability, and the SAT is what the state has chosen. "It's one of nine pathways, but it's not the only pathway," he said.

He believes schools "need to do a better job of educating kids that this is an opportunity you are given. Now, you get an SAT at no cost to you ... it could open all sorts of doors." He believes messaging "is critical."

"We've forever had educators say we need tests that have value to kids, not just an accountability assessment," Behning said. "I don't know that you can find a test instrument that would have more value to more kids."

He also noted that more than 60% of students say they want some postsecondary education. "It's an overwhelming majority of kids who have already indicated that. If we can help influence a broader number of those, why would that not be the right thing to do?"

Behning argues that those who have some postsecondary credential or degree "are going to do much better economically than somebody who has only a high school diploma."

Chris Lubienski, Indiana University professor of education policy, said that some states require all students to take the SAT, including those not taking it as a college entrance exam. "Then, if it becomes just another test the kids take, it's not necessarily something they're going to be invested in as a high-stakes test," he said.

If students want to go into the military or pursue an apprenticeship, they may not feel a need to perform well on the SAT, "so that becomes a concern," Lubienski said.

Newport, Vigo schools curriculum coordinator, said while all students may not use the SAT for graduation purposes, "Our schools will work with students to encourage them to do well on the SAT, because while their plan may not be to attend college today, that can all change later. Trying their best will help them be prepared for what life changes may take place throughout their senior year. Having their best SAT score will help them be prepared," he said.  

What do students say?

Two Vigo County School Corp. high school seniors pursuing a health careers pathway support the changes made in graduation requirements, including the added flexibility of Pathways and the move away from a high school exit exam.

Both Reece Lady and Nevaeh Shouse are pursuing the certified nursing assistant program and will obtain CNA certification, one step in their long-term career goals.

Lady, a North Vigo senior, said that with the changes, "it's a lot less stressful compared to what it used to be."

In the past, even in elementary and middle school, "People made ISTEP seem like it was one of the things you had to pass it or you didn't move on," he said.

With the changes, students must still meet certain requirements that can include tests or certifications. He believes "it's a good change. I think it will be good for a lot of people," he said.

Lady hopes to study nursing at Indiana State University and eventually may seek additional education to become a physical therapist.

Shouse, a Terre Haute South Vigo senior, believes the SAT "is a good thing to have but I don't think it's necessarily the end all, be all, of a student's knowledge." Graduation Pathways provides students with more options, and "you can kind of dip your toes into what you want to do." 

Shouse, who plans on becoming a doctor, is pursuing her CNA certification because "it gives me experience in the healthcare field. When I eventually start my own private practice, I can say I've been in the shoes of everyone."

Nuts and bolts

According to Newport, the tests will be administered electronically at Indiana high schools during the school day March 2-4 at no cost to them. 

Each grade 11 student will be able to designate four colleges, universities or other appropriate postsecondary institutions to receive a score report at no additional expense.

To help prepare, all Indiana students have access to Official SAT Practice through Khan Academy free of charge. Khan Academy is a nonprofit educational organization created in 2008; it provides online tools and can tailor a plan allowing students to practice at their own pace.

Newport sees several benefits.

It will be administered for free and during the school day so students don't have to go take it on a Saturday as they normally would, he said. "This will be an opportunity for them to give the SAT a try for free." If they want, they can take it again their senior year —  at their own expense — to improve their score. 

VCSC also gives the PSAT to all sophomores and juniors, which is funded by the state. The PSAT helps students prepare for the SAT using an exam that is substantially similar, but without the same pressure. This test is not used for college admissions, but it gives students a good idea how well they'll do on the SAT.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or at sue.loughlin@tribstar.com Follow Sue on Twitter @TribStarSue.

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