No Advantage Found for Senior-Year SAT and ACT Testing
What is the optimal testing schedule for a student preparing for the SAT or ACT? Students must balance a number of priorities when selecting a testing schedule:
Students should not commence official testing until they have covered enough material in high school to adequately prepare them for the content covered on the SAT and ACT
They should take the tests when they will not be overwhelmed with competing commitments
Students should complete their testing in time to meet the deadlines for their college applications
They should ideally build a little slack into the system to avoid the stress of a “make or break” final testing administration
We frequently field questions regarding the right time to start official testing. We typically guide students towards testing in their junior year, but we make exceptions for sophomore testing in a small number of cases:
recruited athletes who need a test score to send to a coach
students who need a sophomore test score for dual enrollment purposes
students who need a threshold score on the PSAT or SAT/ACT to secure entry into a higher academic track in their high schools
students who are extremely advanced in both math and verbal skills, who are excellent readers, and are moving into advanced math classes, like Calculus, which are far beyond the scope of the SAT or ACT
In certain cases, we advise students to delay testing until they are midway through their junior year for academic reasons. A student who is enrolled in Algebra 2 or its equivalent shouldn’t take any official SAT or ACT tests until the Spring semester to ensure they have adequate exposure to the math that will be covered on the exam. Students who are relatively weak readers and who are taking more advanced English classes in their junior year may benefit from waiting until mid-year, especially if they will be taking the SAT, with its more rigorous reading demands. For these students, their junior-year English classes will help better prepare the more advanced reading passages on the test.
These are some of the guidelines we follow when advising students on when to start taking the SAT or ACT. But when should a student plan to finish? Some colleagues in the college counseling field have asked us whether or not there is a benefit in waiting to take the final SAT or ACT test during a student’s senior year. It’s a great question. Are there maturation effects that take place between the end of junior year and the fall of senior year which might impact test scores? We decided to run a simple analysis to find out.
We split our database of thousands of students into two groups:
Group 1: students who finished official SAT and ACT testing before June of their junior year
Group 2: students who finished official SAT and ACT testing June of junior year or later
We explored the mean score differences between the two groups.
Baseline Test scores
|Best Score after 3 tests||Net Change||
3rd Test Growth
The results were clear: we found no maturation effects or benefit to waiting until senior year to take a final SAT or ACT. The two groups had surprisingly similar baseline scores, increases, and final results. In fact, the early finishers had a slightly larger increase on the ACT – a net gain of 5.2 points – compared to the 4.66 point gain of the students who finished later.
It’s important to note that there may be differences across the two cohorts that could have affected the results. We didn’t do any form of random sampling. This was a self-selection process: certain students opted for early testing, and others chose to delay their testing.
Analysis of the Findings
Beyond the mean score differences, the data reveal the importance of taking the SAT and ACT multiple times. We typically advise our students to plan on taking the SAT or ACT three times. The average gain between the second and third official SAT was 47 points for the early finishers and 40 points for the late finishers, compared to an average ACT gain of 1.4 points for both the early and late groups. The third test matters.
Some counselors anticipated maturation effects to appear in the data, but there may be a simple explanation for the lack of growth over the summer before senior year. As students progress through high school and get farther away from the math covered on the SAT and ACT, students often forget this content, as they are no longer using or reinforcing it. Calculus is far beyond the scope of the SAT or ACT, which leans heavily on lower level math. Thus, another summer not reinforcing relevant math will not lead to a higher math score; in fact, the summer off might actually hurt a student’s math score.
We tend to see writing skills (as assessed on these tests) remain relatively constant during high school. Most explicit writing instruction (e.g., lessons on punctuation and misplaced modifiers) takes place well before students are in their junior year. Without explicit instruction and practice, student writing scores tend to stagnate. We expect student reading scores to rise with exposure to higher level reading and analysis, but the summer months may not be a time of great textual analysis for many students. What’s more, any reading gains may be offset by losses in math. On the whole, it appears these gains and losses ultimately offset each other, creating no maturation effects for the average student. We are looking at this data in aggregate, assessing average gains. Individual students from this sample may benefit from waiting, depending upon their circumstances, but on average, we couldn’t find any meaningful benefits.
Although we didn’t find evidence of maturation effects between junior and senior year, we did find that testing effects are very real and compelling. It does not appear to matter whether a student’s third test takes place during the junior year or during the senior year: the third test is the charm, wherever that test falls in the testing cycle. Although we advise having three official tests in the testing plan, many students complete their testing in less than three administrations. “One and done” is a great way to go, and some of our top scoring students attain the score they use for admissions on their first effort. Other students achieve their desired score (for admissions or scholarships) on their second testing administration. However, the majority of our students use three testing administrations to attain their peak scores. The fact that many schools superscore the SAT and ACT creates another incentive for multiple testing administrations.
Students should finish their testing whenever it is most convenient for them. Leave space for the early deadlines, and avoid make-or-break tests with their added performance pressure. Keeping the stress levels low will help lead to optimal score gains.