District hopes free test opens college doors 

click to enlarge Sophomore and junior students at Capitol Hill High School prepare to take the PSAT for free. - BEN FELDER
  • Ben Felder
  • Sophomore and junior students at Capitol Hill High School prepare to take the PSAT for free.

“A goal without a plan is just wish,” goes the popular quote by Antoine de Saint Exupery, a French poet from the early 20th Century.

For Ryan Patten, who is a guidance counselor at Capitol Hill High School, that saying articulates the challenge he sees with many of his students who have a goal to someday go to college, but lack much of a plan.

“For a lot of these kids that’s what it is,” Patten said. “They say they want to go to college but they don’t know what it takes to get from point A to B.”

College visits, applying for financial assistance and maintaining good grades are all part of the planning process for college. But often that journey begins with the Scholastic Assessment Test, the standardized test that is almost universally used for college admissions.

Counselors like Patten recommend taking the test as early as sophomore year, and then again a year or two later in an effort to improve and hopefully increase the chances for admission. However, in a school like Capitol Hill that serves mostly low-income students, like so many of the high schools in Oklahoma City, spending any amount of money to take the test each time can be a barrier.

That’s why the OKC district offer the preliminary SAT (PSAT) to every sophomore and junior student free of charge this week in an effort to open the college door to more students.

“Some of the students have a hard time getting a dollar for jean day, so getting $14 for this test, especially when they don’t understand the importance, is extremely difficult,” Patten said. “In other [more affluent] schools, students are hearing about the importance of this test from an early age, so it’s just expected that they will pay to take it.”

A free PSAT is viewed as a way to help OKC students turn their wish of going to college into a plan. And for many students, the wish to go to college is there.

“I will probably be the first one in my family to go to college and my family has been wanting me to do that since my grades have been going up,” said sophomore Kelly Herera, who like most of her classmates raised her hand when asked who plans to go to college after graduation.

Herera wants to go college, but she admits the PSAT probably wouldn’t be on her radar if it were not being offered for free.

“I think taking it this year will help me get better and improve next year when I take it again,” Herera said.
Without a free opportunity to take the test, Herera’s likely decision not to pay for it would have been the norm in the district. Last year, just 20 sophomore students in the district took the PSAT, a small fraction of the 200 students from all grades that took the test.

The district’s investment of $41,000 to offer the test represents one of the first changes Superintendent Robert Neu incorporated after coming to the district last summer. Free PSAT’s were something he offered in his previous district in Federal Way, Washington, and even before he officially started in Oklahoma City, Neu announced he wanted to offer the test for free here.

“[The tests were taken] during the school day, so it was an equity issue,” Neu said in an interview last summer. “So many of our kids don’t have transportation, don’t have resources to get to school on a Saturday to take the test and don’t have [the money] to pay for the test.”

Neu said offering the PSAT for free in Federal Way increased participation in the SAT from 25 percent to 94 percent.

Besides giving students the chance to see where they need to improve academically in order to prepare for college, Neu said many students who take the test are surprised at how well they did and can develop confidence.

“Students who didn’t think they had the skills performed at a level [on the test] that surprised them, and all of a sudden, they thought, ‘I can be that student. I can be college-bound. I can be in the more rigorous programs of study,’” Neu said.

Results from the PSAT will also be shared with the district so that student weaknesses can be identified, which can be more valuable during sophomore year compared to a junior or senior year.

“Based on student’s PSAT scores, the College Board will provide an AP potential report; this data identifies students who are likely to be successful in certain courses,” said Cathy Seward, advanced academic coordinator for the district. “This information is helpful to school counselors and teachers when students need career guidance.”

The district also hopes to identify students who might qualify for the National Merit Scholarship or the National Hispanic Recognition Program.

In an education system where high-stakes testing is sometimes viewed as a problem, the Oklahoma City district hopes the PSAT is one low-pressure opportunity for students to develop a deeper understanding for with it takes to go to college and determine where they need to improve.

“It’s free and you get to see where you are at and what you know,” sophomore Mina Quillen said a day before taking the test. “And then next year you get to take it again for free.”

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