Note: This article was previously published on the Get Schooled blog of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Earlier this month, Atlanta Public Schools (APS) issued a press release announcing that the “Number of APS seniors taking SAT college entrance exam soars to 90% thanks to high school principals, counselors and Achieve Atlanta.”

This year’s result is 33 percentage points higher than the Class of 2018. This is a huge deal.

Taking a college entrance exam (usually the SAT or ACT) is a requirement for students who want to go to college. And in Georgia, not only do students have to take the test, they need to score a certain minimum to be admitted to one of our public institutions. Many of us can still remember walking into a crowded auditorium with pencils in hand to go through this American rite of passage.SAT

So, why weren’t more APS students taking the test? Achieve Atlanta dug into this question and talked to APS counselors, our partners at the College Advising Corps and students themselves. What they described were a series of barriers that got in the way of students registering for or taking the test. Turns out these barriers aren’t unique to APS.

As noted in a Brookings article on the subject, “Students have to register and pay for these tests, and then travel to a testing center on a weekend to take them. This is straightforward, if you have internet access, a computer, a credit card and a car. If you are missing any of these resources, it’s a lot more challenging. The nearest testing center may be in a part of town that is unreachable by public transportation early on a Saturday morning.”

Once we understood the root causes of the problem. We set about working to remove barriers. We worked with the school system and the College Board to implement a program called SAT in the School Day, whereby every junior in the district takes the SAT during the spring semester, at school, for free. This initiative has already been launched and evaluated in other parts of the country, with promising results. By providing the SAT during the school day, we are not only ensuring students can access the test, but research has found that providing universal SAT also reveals many more students who are college-ready but perhaps weren’t planning to enroll.

This initiative is good for kids. But this is not the only reason that this is a huge deal.

This is a huge deal because in agreeing to test every junior, the APS district and school leadership KNEW that their average test scores would take a hit. Because SAT scores are publicly available data, there are perverse incentives across the country to ignore students who don’t take the test, because it’s assumed these students won’t score well.

Setting aside this fact for the good of our students took COURAGE from everyone involved. And we want to say CONGRATULATIONS.

Doing the right thing is hardly ever easy, but it’s much easier when you’re doing the right thing together. That’s the beauty of this type of collaboration that we’ve helped facilitate with the district, the high schools and our nonprofit partners. We push each other to take risks and we also have each other’s backs. We sink or swim together.

The fact that pretty much every student is taking the SAT in their junior year will help students, their counselors and advisers know what college options students have earlier in the process and develop an action plan based on those options. The goal is to enable students to make strong postsecondary choices. We’ll also be able to see where we’re collectively falling down in preparing students. We will now know how many of our students don’t have the minimum scores to get into our state’s public institutions and will be able to have the tough conversations to address this issue.

We know that when it comes to college access, the deck is stacked against our students at every turn. Even the SAT itself and the fact that colleges still heavily rely on this measure is problematic (but that’s a topic for a separate article). But while we work to change the system, we’ll keep fighting for every single one of our kids. Because at Achieve Atlanta, we believe in what’s possible for our students and our community; we expect excellence from ourselves, our students and our community of stakeholders; and together we are helping students achieve their dreams — for themselves and their families.