The number of students taking the SAT college admissions test at least once is growing back to pre-pandemic figures—even as some colleges and universities made the test optional at the onset of the pandemic.
More than 1.9 million students in the graduating class of 2023 took the test, according to the College Board, which administers the test. That marks an upswing from a major decline in test takers between the graduating classes of 2020 which finished high school just after the onset of the pandemic and 2021 (more than 2.1 million versus more than 1.5 million respectively).
Yet even as the number of test takers grows, the average total score on the test’s math and reading and writing sections remain on a bit of a decline since 2017. At the same time, new data from researchers highlights how students from wealthier households are more likely to score higher on standardized college admissions tests such as the SAT and the ACT.
College admissions experts say that even in a test optional world, tests like the SAT are here to stay.
“I think it’s going to take a while for people to really relax into test-optional and for the institutions that are choosing to be test-optional to pivot away from prioritizing standardized testing, because that has been such a big part of assessing a student’s readiness for college and comparing applicants for all these years,” said Rachel York, a college admissions counselor and academic adviser at educational consulting firm IvyWise.
What the SAT can offer college admissions officers
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, several colleges and universities, including highly selective institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT, stopped requiring SAT scores in applications—a response to disruptions from the pandemic.
The College Board paused SAT testing in March, May, and June of 2020, and even when testing resumed in August that year, many local test centers closed or reduced capacity due to health and safety concerns, the nonprofit said in a statement.
But now, some institutions are reversing course, once again requiring the test. MIT announced a reinstitution of the SAT for applicants in March 2022.
“Our research shows standardized tests help us better assess the academic preparedness of all applicants, and also help us identify socioeconomically disadvantaged students who lack access to advanced coursework or other enrichment opportunities that would otherwise demonstrate their readiness for MIT,” said Stu Schmill, dean of admissions and student financial services in a statement. “We believe a requirement is more equitable and transparent than a test-optional policy.”
MIT’s return to requiring the SAT makes sense given that a student’s performance on the test’s math section in particular has been a helpful indicator of the student’s readiness for such a STEM-focused school, York said. Other test-optional institutions may focus more on a student’s GPA.
What SAT scores reflect about access to quality education
John N. Friedman, a professor of economics at Brown University who co-authored a July study on the factors that go into admissions decisions at highly selective, private institutions, said that MIT’s return to the SAT also makes sense for equity.
In the study, researchers found that SAT scores reflect longstanding disparities in students’ access to quality education. Specifically, they found that students from wealthier families were far more likely to score higher on the test.
Factors such as family income, race, and where students live all impact students’ educational opportunities overall.
“These test scores correlate with lots of these demographic divides,” Friedman said. “But it’s not a divide that the test created, it’s a divide that exists due to these deep factors in society.”
When it comes to the role SAT scores play in college admissions, Friedman paints a scenario: A student from an expensive, high-quality private school with access to multiple AP courses does very well academically in advanced math courses and also scores high on the SAT. That helps admission officers at places like MIT know that the student is ready for a typical MIT student workload.
A student at a school with fewer resources, including fewer AP and other advanced math course options, and who doesn’t score high on the SAT may not interest MIT admission officers. However, a student at the same school with a high SAT score might be considered by admissions officers because within their school context they still showed strong math skills on the standardized test.
It’s partly why York and others advising students encourage them to take the SAT even if they don’t plan to submit any scores.
“If you score well on standardized testing, that’s an asset to your application, even at schools that are test optional,” York said.
Friedman, the Brown researcher, said the SAT is not without biases. In fact, students from less advantaged families don’t always have access to the test itself because of fees or the lack of transportation to get to a testing center. However, the College Board does offer fee waivers under certain conditions.
But the test is still a good measure of historic disparities that all educators should pay attention to, he added.
Why students are still advised to take the SAT
When asked about the validity of relying on SAT scores when scores overall are declining (as also seen with ACT scores), York said context matters for college admissions officers.
Educators across the country saw dips in grades in the early years of the pandemic so a similar drop in SAT scores is not unexpected, she added.
It’s also important to note that the students who are submitting test scores are the ones who are doing exceptionally well, York said.
Regardless, York still advises students to take the SAT.
David Hawkins, chief education and policy officer with the National Association for College Admission Counseling, says there are broader benefits students should consider when deciding to take the test.
For instance, some students might not immediately know where they plan to apply. So taking the test covers their bases if a school ends up requiring it, Hawkins said.
And there are scholarships that rely on standardized test scores as eligibility criteria, including state merit-based grants, even in states where admissions are test-optional for now, Hawkins added.
While it’s too early to tell what the Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action earlier this year will mean for the value of SAT scores when race can no longer be a factor admissions officers look at when reviewing applicants, York doesn’t see the SAT’s role in the process going away any time soon.
“My hope is that we can continue to kind of elevate the other aspects of a student’s application, the transcripts, what they’ve done, what their teachers say about them as an indication of who’s going to be successful, especially in the wake of the Supreme Court decision,” she said.