700,000 Fewer Took the SAT

Did the exam lose the lowest-income students?

September 20, 2021

About 1.5 million students in the high school Class of 2021 took the SAT at least once -- down 700,000 from the Class of 2020.

"Many students attempted to take the SAT but were unfortunately unable to due to widespread COVID-related disruptions, with more than 1 million test registrations cancelled as schools and test centers had to close or reduce capacity," said a report from the College Board.

In response to the pandemic, the College Board paused testing in March, May and June of 2020, affecting the ability of members of the Class of 2021 to test.

"When weekend testing resumed in August 2020, many local test centers closed or reduced capacity due to COVID-related health and safety measures," the College Board said in the report.

"This fall, test center capacity is increasing as demand from students remains high amid continued impacts of the pandemic, and nearly 1.4 million students from the class of 2022 have already taken the SAT at least once, with three weekend test dates remaining in 2021," the report said.

The College Board said that "despite the decline in participation due to school and test center closures, proportional representation across student subgroups was roughly similar to previous classes." The board attributed this to the School Day program, in which students take the SAT in school, on a school day.

In the Class of 2021, 950,000 students took the SAT on a school day, slightly down from 1.1 million in the Class of 2020 (a 14 percent drop). Over all, 62 percent of the Class of 2021 took the SAT on a school day, compared to 49 percent of the Class of 2020 and 43 percent of the Class of 2019.

The ACT, which is also expected to have declines in test takers, will issue a report sometime next month.

In terms of how the students who took the SAT did on the exam, they did slightly better -- the average SAT score is up slightly for the Class of 2021 -- 1060 compared to 1051 for the Class of 2020. However, the College Board said "because participation numbers vary so widely from normal years due to the pandemic, it is not possible to compare performance results between the class of 2021 and previous classes."

The patterns of prior years, however, are clear on scores by race and ethnicity. Asian Americans scored better on average, in both sections of the test, than any other group.

Class of ’21 SAT Scores, by Race and Ethnicity

Group Reading and Writing Mathematics
Total 533 528
American Indian/Alaska Native 468 459
Asian American 597 642
Black 477 457
Latinx 490 477
Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander 481 469
White 562 550

A big question about the results is whether they represent a cross-section of students. Despite the College Board's statement that "proportional representation across student subgroups was roughly similar to previous classes," much speculation exists that those who took the exam may have been wealthier or better students than average.

  • The Common Application reported that while only 43 percent of those who used its application submitted SAT or ACT scores, the numbers were greater for those applying to more competitive colleges.
  • The percentage of students granted fee waivers (for students with low incomes) to take the SAT fell from 17 percent in 2020 to just 7 percent in 2021.
  • In the Class of 2021, 52 percent of students reported having a parent with a bachelor's degree or higher, compared to 49 percent in 2020.

Robert Schaeffer, executive director of FairTest: National Center for Fair and Open Testing, and an opponent of standardized testing, said, "The sharp decline in the number of students taking the SAT reflects both pandemic-related test date cancellations and the unprecedented growth of institutions offering test-optional admissions."

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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