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College & Workforce Readiness

SAT Test-Taking Declines in Settings Not Sponsored by States or Districts

By Catherine Gewertz — March 07, 2016 3 min read
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The number of students taking the SAT in programs sponsored by their states or districts has soared by 89 percent between last March and this March, while the number opting to take it on their own, outside of those programs, has dropped 22 percent in the same time period.

Those numbers illustrate the dramatic shift that’s taking place in SAT test-taking patterns as the College Board pushes hard to secure statewide testing contracts. Take a look at the change in numbers between the March 2015 administration and the March 2016 administration, which debuted the newly redesigned SAT:

You’ll see that the overall 1.5 percent increase is driven by the rise in the number of tests being given as part of the College Board’s “school day” program. That program allows states or districts to give the test to all their juniors, or make it available for those students. The “national” program reflects the students who take the SAT on their own. Nearly 23 percent fewer students took the SAT that way in March 2016 than did so in March 2015.

As we’ve reported, the College Board has been pushing hard to secure more statewide contracts. That’s been ACT’s modus operandi for many years, and it has a long list of statewide contracts to boast about. For College Board, a small list is growing.

Five states—Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Michigan, and New Hampshire—currently require all juniors to take the SAT. Others, such as Idaho, offer it to all students for free, but don’t require it. Some school districts, such as New York City and Houston, have similar programs. Those boost the number of students taking the college-entrance exam, which is key to the point of offering it: Such programs aim to reduce college-application barriers and get students thinking early about college preparation.

As the debut of the redesigned SAT drew near, college counselors and test-prep professionals speculated that administration numbers would be much lower than last year, since many counselors had been advising students to wait until early kinks, if any, had been worked out. That prediction seems to have held true in the slice of the SAT world where students choose for themselves whether to take it or not.

Early Feedback From New SAT

There have been some positive reports emerging from the frontlines of the new SAT’s maiden voyage, however. Kaplan Test Prep surveyed 500-plus students who took the test, and 60 percent said they found the questions straightforward. About the same proportion, though, criticized the test section lengths as too long. Forty-eight percent said the test was about as difficult as they’d expected, 30 percent said it was tougher, and 22 percent said it was easier than they’d expected.

Perhaps reflecting the uncertainty about the new SAT, 56 percent of the respondents in the Kaplan survey said they had already taken, or were planning to take, the ACT as well. Seventeen percent said they hadn’t planned to take the ACT too, but changed their minds and did so. Those trends continued the trend Kaplan has been seeing toward a “two-test landscape,” according to Lee Weiss, the company’s vice president of college admissions programs.

College Board officials have emphasized that the new SAT was designed to better reflect what students learn in high school. But if the Kaplan survey is any indicator, that might not be taking shape the way they’d hoped. When Kaplan asked students if the new SAT reflected what they have learned in high school, 16 percent said “very much so,” 56 percent said “somewhat,” 23 percent said “not too much,” and 5 percent responded “not at all.”

Rosier survey figures about the new SAT were released by the College Board. In its survey of 8,089 test-takers, 71 percent reported that the test reflected what they learned in high school. By a 6-to-1 margin, students said they preferred the new format. Three-quarters found the reading section easier than, or about as easy as, they’d expected. One of the College Board’s key aims—to test vocabulary that’s useful rather than obscure—seems to have had an impact. Eighty percent of the students College Board surveyed said the vocabulary on the test would be useful to them later in life, while only 55 percent said so the previous year.

The College Board also asked students about test prep, since it has been pushing hard to make those services accessible to more students through its partnership with Khan Academy. The number of students who paid for test-prep services was down 19 percent compared with the March 2015 SAT administration. Half of all the students who took the March 2016 test used the free Khan Academy preparation services, and 98 percent said they were extremely, very or somewhat helpful, according to the College Board.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.