Will College Board recover from initial losses of voluntary SAT students?

Some 277,000 students voluntarily took the redesigned SAT last Saturday. An additional 187,000 students will take school-day tests this spring, beginning with last Wednesday’s statewide SAT in Connecticut. According to Catherine Gewertz of Ed Week, the combined 463,000 students taking the inaugural SAT represents a net gain of 1.5% over last year’s 456,000 testers. Growth is good, right?

In this case, the “growth,” which is driven entirely by statewide and district contracts for school-day testing, actually conceals a significant loss of voluntary testers. In March 2015, the College Board only had statewide contracts in the small market states of Delaware, Maine and Idaho and a smattering of district deals, accounting for a total of 98,100 school-day testers. Meanwhile, 357,9000 students voluntarily participated in the national administration of the March 2015 SAT. Between the March 2015 test date and the March 2016 date the SAT shed 80,900 voluntary students, a drop of 22.6% from one official test date to the corresponding date a year later.

These numbers tell us that a lot of would-be test-takers shied away from the first official administration of the new test this past weekend. This outcome was anticipated, at least for the first official run of the new test. But what would happen if the College Board lost 22.6% of its voluntary test takers throughout the entire testing year? Even with the addition of the extra statewide and district testers during the school day, the total number of SAT takers for the year would fall below 1,525,000 students (down from 1,700,000 in 2015). The ACT, by contrast,anticipates a 2,000,000 student haul for 2016 (up from 1,924,000 in 2015). Overcoming a gap of nearly 500,000 students would be quite an imposing challenge for the College Board!

It seems apparent the College Board is heading towards a net decline of students and market share in 2016 but perhaps not to the startling degree suggested by the March test-taker numbers. Although declines in voluntary SAT testers are expected to continue, we anticipate that registration declines for the national administrations of the May and June SATs will be less severe than those seen this month. Some students who were coached to avoid the first SAT, with its score delays and uncertainty, will return later in the spring and fall. And don’t forget the return of the tutors for the May and June tests! We’ll factor, however slightly, into those numbers as well. The SAT will certainly lure some students back into the fold with its more generous timing. Other students, responding to their artificially inflated percentiles on the October PSAT may also try out the spring SATs. And the generally positive student feedback on last Saturday’s inaugural test will help keep more students from switching over to the ACT.

The real growth in students, however, will come from the College Board representatives who are attempting to lock in additional district and state deals across the country. The superior Common Core alignment of the SAT, coupled with its competitive pricing compared to the ACT, PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments, should lure more states and districts to sign on for school-day SAT testing.

If a significant share of SAT testing migrates from voluntary national testing to mandated state and district testing, the pool of SAT students will change. We would anticipate lower average SAT scores, as the pool of students would include a larger share of students who may not be planning to attend college, and those who have not prepared for the test, but are simply required to take it during the school day.

In the short term, while College Board reps are hustling to ink new state and district deals, there will inevitably be losses in the number of voluntary testers, an effect that was widely anticipated by the College Board leadership. Facing regular annual declines in market share for a decade, the leadership of the organization was willing to accept short term losses in the pursuit of a long-term strategic realignment, willing to embrace a 20% decline in voluntary testers in exchange for a 90% increase in state and district deals. With the generally positive reception of the inaugural redesigned SAT and a string of successes securing statewide contracts in 2015, the College Board could be on its way to turn the ship, regain share, and eventually reclaim its leadership position in the domain of national assessment.

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