Double Take

Why more high school students should retake the SAT

October 25, 2018
close-up of a pencil and a standardized test sheet

Students who take the SAT more than once end up with higher scores and higher college enrollment rates, according to a working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The findings suggest a relatively cost-effective way to get more students, especially students from underrepresented groups, into four-year colleges, the researchers who published the paper say.

Higher-income white and Asian-American students retake the SAT at a much higher frequency than low-income students or students of other races. And those retakes overwhelmingly lead to a higher maximum score, the researchers found, even when controlling for the fact that students who retake the test might have certain advantages, or be more academically motivated, than students who don’t retake.

"If you’re applying to colleges that are only going to consider your maximum SAT score, then it cannot hurt, and will probably help you, to retake the SAT and therefore give yourself a shot at a higher score,” says Joshua Goodman, an education economist at the Harvard Kennedy School and one of the paper’s authors. The vast majority of four-year colleges only consider a student’s maximum SAT score — either the highest overall score or a mix and match of personal bests for each section.

For students on the cusp of being able to get into a four-year college, the extra points from a retake can make all the difference, Goodman says, bringing scores up to an admissible threshold. Students who retook the SAT were more likely to enroll in a four-year school, likely because of their higher scores.

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"If you’re applying to colleges that are only going to consider your maximum SAT score, then it cannot hurt, and will probably help you, to retake the SAT and therefore give yourself a shot at a higher score."

The implications could be widespread: If retakes became more standard, it could help close the income and racial enrollment gaps in four-year schools.

Taking the SAT costs students about $50 to $60 each. The College Board, which supplied the data for the group’s research, already offers fee waivers for students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, but the researchers found that many students who qualify for the waiver don’t use it, suggesting that states, districts, and schools should partner on informational campaigns so that students know about their options.

Other potential policy measures could include covering the cost for everyone to take the test at least twice, eliminating the extra steps that low-income students have to take to apply for a waiver. While several states pay for all students to take the ACT or SAT at least once, no state pays for SAT retakes. Tennessee is the only state that pays for a re-do of the ACT — and they’ve seen results. Last year, the second year the state paid for retakes, 75 percent of high school seniors took advantage of the program. Of those, 40 percent saw an increased score, and more than 2,000 increased their ACT score enough to qualify for a state HOPE scholarship, which covers up to $16,000 in tuition or fees.

Of course, making it easier to retake college entrance exams is hardly a cure-all for inequalities around college access, Goodman notes. For one thing, if everyone started retaking the test, and everyone’s scores went up, advantages would be minimized.

That’s a long way from happening, Goodman says. In the meantime, high school students, school counselors, and parents should consider the benefits of signing up for a retake. 

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Takeaways
  • The study found that, on average, students’ scores improved by nearly 90 points — of out 2400 — when they retook the SAT. Low-scorers tended to see an even larger improvement.
  • Students who retook the SAT were more likely to enroll in a four-year college, rather than a two-year community college or no college at all.
  • Four-year colleges typically have higher graduation rates — so retaking the SAT might not only increase students’ chances of enrolling in college; it might also increase students’ chances of getting a degree, period.
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