College Admissions Testing: A Resurgence in the Post-Pandemic Era

Jed Applerouth, PhD
December 7, 2023
min read
College Admissions Testing: A Resurgence in the Post-Pandemic Era

Post-pandemic, the SAT has witnessed a remarkable recovery: accessibility issues are fading and students who want to test are now able to do so. What does this mean for the future of college admissions testing in the US? Let's dive into the data to find out.

The SAT’s Comeback

For the class of 2021, the cohort most immediately affected by pandemic testing conditions, only 1.5 million students took the SAT and 1.3 million students took the ACT. Two years later, the SAT has rebounded to 1.9 million test-takers, but the ACT has only returned to 1.4 million test-takers. While the ACT is down 34% from its 2016 peak, the SAT is gaining momentum.  It seems likely the SAT rebound will continue if schools and students embrace the Digital SAT arriving in March 2024 and if more universities return to test-required policies.

Pandemic Effects and Test Optional Policies

The pandemic and ensuing test-optional admissions policies undoubtedly reduced some of the demand for testing. 2018 may be considered the national peak of admissions testing with a combined 4.05 million SAT and ACT test takers. Today the combined cohort is 750,000 students smaller; however, that gap may shrink if the SAT’s new digital test attracts a broader range of students.

pandemic effects and test optional policies

School-Day Testing Fuels SAT Growth

A significant driver of the SAT’s growth is the School-Day testing initiative. A substantial 67% percent of SAT test-takers from the class of 2023, nearly 1.3 million students, took the SAT in their classrooms during school hours at no direct cost to them. This trend is poised to gain momentum with the advent of the shortened and easier-to-administer digital SAT debuting in March 2024. Both the SAT and ACT intend to expand their reach to more schools, districts and states, adding to the 25 states that either mandate SAT or ACT testing to fulfill national testing requirements or offer these tests free for juniors.

School-Day Testing Fuels SAT Growth

Changing Demographics of Test-Takers

While the total cohort of SAT takers has declined by 300,000 students from its peak, it appears that lower-income students are over-represented in the students dropping out of the testing pool. Use of fee waivers has fallen in recent years, from 21% of students from the class of 2018 to 16% of students from the class of 2023, though this may be partially explained by the rise of “free” school-day testing. The College Board releases data on the socioeconomic status of test-takers, and while the economic categories used by the College Board have shifted, muddying the waters a bit, it does appear that test-takers are skewing more affluent (measured by median family income) in the post-pandemic era.

Again, the change in categories doesn’t allow for perfect comparisons, but it seems students from families earning below $60,000 annually have dropped from 43% of students in 2016 to around 25% of students in the class of 2023. During this same period, students from families earning over $80,000 annually have increased from 46% to around 60% of test takers. This data is student-reported, it doesn’t factor in inflation, and there is a significant share of non-responders; yet, given those caveats and the limitations of this data, there does seem to be some directional movement here. And public perception seems to be aligned with the trend. Students from more affluent families, looking to apply to more selective schools, feel heightened pressure to attain competitive scores to stand out in a crowded admissions field. Students applying to lower-tier schools, on the other hand, submit test scores at much lower rates.

Declines in Test Scores and Student Achievement

While the number of students testing is rising, average test scores are declining. Average SAT scores are significantly down from before the pandemic, which may reflect pandemic learning loss or less attention to paid to test prep in a world where many schools have remained test-optional.

The average SAT score dropped from 1068 (class of 2018) to 1028 (class of 2023). Similarly, average ACT scores decreased from 21.0 (2017) to 19.5 (2023), the lowest average ACT score since 1991.  Alarmingly, 43% of students taking the ACT in the class of 2023 failed to meet benchmarks for college preparedness in any subject.

This trend is particularly alarming given the steady rise in GPAs, suggesting a disconnect between grades and standardized measures of achievement. It also raises critical questions about the factors driving GPA increases and their alignment with actual student preparedness.

The Near Term

While the SAT has regained momentum since the pandemic, everything changes in March when paper tests are officially retired and the US enters the era of digital SAT testing. Whether high schools across the country fully embrace the digital SAT remains to be seen. We will know much more in the coming year. Similarly, the ACT may make more aggressive moves to modernize and release a digital adaptive test, which was the ACT’s plan for most of a decade, pre-pandemic.

In the next 12 months, we anticipate more long-term decisions from college admissions offices regarding test-optional, test-required, or test-blind admissions policies, which will directly influence student test-taking behaviors. If numerous state institutions return to testing requirements, this will fuel the momentum for the College Board and ACT, Inc.

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