“Certainly disturbing, to say the least,” said state Rep. Perry Thurston Jr., a Fort Lauderdale Democrat. Thurston serves on the House Higher Education and Workforce Subcommittee, where a bill has been filed to prevent the higher test score requirements from taking effect in 2014. A similar bill has been filed in the Senate. Neither has gained any traction in the Republican-dominated Legislature.
Research has shown that financial aid to needy students can significantly boost college participation and graduation rates, but aid to affluent students doesn’t have the same impact — those students were largely going to attend and graduate anyway.
In academic circles, there are wide-ranging opinions as to why certain types of students don’t perform as well on college admission tests — but most acknowledge that there are performance gaps. The College Board has spoken about the uneven results of its SAT, though it insists the test itself is fair, and argued that inequality in America’s K-12 school system was to blame.
Others say the SAT and ACT use culturally biased questions, or suggest that the environment some students live in — such as being the first in their family to go to college, or speaking a language other than English at home — is a disadvantage on standardized tests. The ability of a student’s family to afford expensive test-prep courses may be another factor.
More than 800 colleges now no longer require the SAT or ACT for admission — at least in part to preserve access for minorities and the economically disadvantaged.
Meanwhile, the cost of Bright Futures has kept getting bigger, with the growth in scholarship payouts far outpacing the growth of lottery revenues. To combat this budget drain, state lawmakers reduced the dollar value of the scholarship awards and raised minimum qualifications. Those who achieve the basic-level Bright Futures scholarship currently receive $75 a credit hour at a four-year institution, while students who’ve earned the more-difficult Florida Academic Scholars award get $100 a credit hour.
Lawmakers have avoided adding needs-based criteria.
Braulio Colón, executive director for the Florida College Access Network, said it’s time for income to become a factor. Colón said it wouldn’t necessarily mean shutting out wealthy families — every Bright Futures student could get a base award of $1,000 or $1,200, he says. But additional dollars could be given to students who have a demonstrated financial need, including those who are shut out from federal Pell Grant dollars.
“I’m talking about kids who don’t qualify for Pell, I’m talking about kids who are sort of middle of the road,” Colón said. “We’ve got to get smarter with how we invest our state resources.”
Spatig would like to see students’ high school GPA given more weight as a way of raising requirements. A sliding scale could be created, he said, where students with an outstanding GPA still qualify for Bright Futures, even if they are slightly below the minimum test score.
Such a solution would benefit Hialeah High School junior Brian Gomez. Gomez has a weighted GPA of 4.6, but his ACT score of 23 (which would have been sufficient before) won’t be high enough to qualify for Bright Futures under the planned changes. Gomez, the son of a single mom who would be the first in his family to attend college, said he deserves to be judged on more than just a single test.
Long term, he said, Florida may be worse off for turning students like him away.
“It could cost the state, having to spend more money on maybe unemployment benefits or welfare benefits,” Gomez said. “Because a whole generation of students would not be able to get a college degree.”