Says under her leadership, “Democrats fought to … make sure the (2011 HOPE) bill … prevented the use of ACT/SAT testing standards.”
— Stacey Abrams on Wednesday, January 17th, 2018 in a statement to The Root
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams has taken some heat for co-sponsoring a 2011 bill to revamp the HOPE higher education aid program. Her critics say she cut a deal that hurt poor and minority students.
A key point of contention centers on the role of standardized test scores. In this fact-check, we looked at whether Abrams prevented the use of ACT/SAT testing standards in setting eligibility for scholarships.
HOPE (Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally) begun in 1992, was one of the country’s earliest merit-based state aid programs. Over the years, it provided billions of dollars to hundreds of thousands of students.
Until 2011, HOPE grants defrayed costs for attending technical colleges, and HOPE scholarships covered the full tuition plus books and other fees for people working on associate’s and bachelor’s degrees.
In 2011, costs were outstripping revenue from the Georgia state lottery that funded the program. Gov. Nathan Deal unveiled a plan that, among other things, created two tiers in HOPE scholarship awards – one for the best students and one for good but not exceptional ones.
The original full-tuition scholarship was renamed the Zell Miller scholarship in honor of the former U.S. senator and governor. It significantly ratcheted up the eligibility requirements. The original HOPE scholarship remained in name but became less generous, providing close to 90 percent of tuition but no longer covering books and other costs.
Unlike the Zell Miller award, available only to students with 3.7 grade point averages, the HOPE scholarship remained free of a standardized test score requirement. Students were still eligible if they had at least a 3.0 grade point average.
Abrams’ communications director Priyanka Mantha said Deal’s original proposal included a test score requirement for HOPE awards, too, but “under her leadership, the scholarship retained an eligibility tier without testing requirements.” She said, “such tests would have disproportionately disqualified low-income students and students of color.”
There is no hard data on discussions that took place behind closed doors, but an Atlanta Journal Constitution article from that time said the test score idea was among eight suggestions under consideration. Mantha said creation of the Zell Miller scholarship with a test score requirement was the result of Abrams’ intervention. “Students who may have been eliminated from eligibility under the GOP proposal instead retained access to a version of the HOPE scholarship,” she said.
As part of the 2011 bill, lawmakers raised the grade average for the HOPE grant for technical colleges from 2.0 to 3.0. According to a report from the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning study center, full-time enrollment in the technical college system fell “nearly 25 percent between 2011 and 2012.”
In 2013, lawmakers rolled back the hike in the grade average.
Other changes remained in place, including pulling back the amount of HOPE grant and scholarship aid.
After the first two years, a Wall Street Journal analysis found that students from higher-income neighborhoods went from being twice as likely to secure a full-tuition scholarship to three times as likely than students from lower income neighborhoods.
Abrams supported a 2011 plan to make minimum test scores part of the eligibility requirement for the full-tuition HOPE scholarship. The bill that emerged added a test score requirement for a renamed scholarship available only to students the highest grades. It did not add similar requirements to the original scholarship program, but made it less generous.
Abrams’ statement is accurate but leaves out important details. We rate this claim Half True.