Rates of NJ students taking the SAT plummets as colleges go ‘test optional’, new data shows

The SAT, a time-honored rite of passage for students applying for college, stopped being required by many colleges when the coronavirus pandemic upended education.

So what did New Jersey students do? They stopped taking it in big numbers.

The cancellation of several spring 2020 test dates by the College Board limited the number of chances Class of 2021 students had to take the exam, and almost certainly contributed to the drop in test-taking for students who were juniors when the pandemic began.

Less than half of New Jersey students who graduated in 2021 took the SAT at some point in high school, down from more than 70% of students in the year before the pandemic, data released by the New Jersey Department of Education on Wednesday shows.

  • SAT scores rose in NJ during first full COVID school year. See how your school district ranks.

“Students are still getting accepted to schools without (the SATs) and so it’s an expense and piece of preparation that they don’t need to invest in anymore,” Suzanne McCotter, the dean of TCNJ’s School of Education, told NJ Advance Media.

The drop was even larger in the PSAT, a preparatory exam usually given to underclassmen during school hours. Participation in that test dropped more than 50% from the pre-pandemic school year to the 2020-2021 school year.

And the ACT, a different college entrance exam that has typically had lower participation rates than the SAT in New Jersey, saw its participation cut in half.

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The SAT and ACT calculations are based on the total number of twelfth graders enrolled at the end of the school year, Department of Education spokesman Mike Yapple told NJ Advance Media. The PSAT calculations are based on the tenth and eleventh grade versions of the exam, and are calculated based on the total number of students enrolled in tenth or eleventh grades at the end of the year.

The data reflects if a senior took an exam at any point during their school career, not just during their senior year.

Of the 105,442 students who were seniors last year, 47,861 took the SAT, and 9,327 took the ACT. (Some students likely took both exams, but it’s unclear how many took both.) And out of 206,614 tenth and eleventh graders, just 69,775 took the PSATs.

The drop in SAT participation was not even among all schools. At least 35 districts saw participation rates in line with pre-pandemic SAT rates. (Data is self-reported by the districts to the state.)

One school – Newark charter school North Star Academy – had a 100% SAT participation rate. Weehawken, a public school district, saw a 97% SAT participation rate.

Eric Crespo, the superintendent of the Weehawken school district, said the school offers the test during the school day and makes it fee-free for students, lowering any barriers students might face in accessing the exam. The test is usually given over the weekends and costs $55.

They also did not change their approach to testing when schools started to go test-optional during the pandemic.

“While we don’t know exactly what the future holds, our students will be ready for every scenario,” he said of their continued dedication to the SAT.

This approach to testing makes it easier for students with a lower socioeconomic profile to access the SATs, McCotter said.

“The predictors of how well you’ll do on the SATs doesn’t have anything to do with your smarts, with your intellect, with your preparation,” McCotter said. “It’s got a lot more to do with, did your mom go to college, or what’s your zip code?”

And for students who will score well on exams, it makes sense to take them even when applying to test-optional schools, Mike Velasco, the founder of New Jersey-based Red Oak College Planning, a financial planning firm that helps families figure out how to pay for college, told NJ Advance Media when discussing college costs.

In the ultra-competitive race for merit-based scholarships, having an impressive SAT score can help a student’s chances of getting a larger award, he said.

That edge was also a factor in Weehawken’s approach to testing last school year.

“We are aware many colleges have gone test-optional. However, if by chance a college does compare a student with a strong SAT score versus a student without a score we wouldn’t want to miss any potential advantage,” Crespo said.

It’s unclear if this will be a sustained drop, or if students will return to testing. Some New Jersey colleges had previously said their “test optional” policies were temporary during the pandemic.

The College Board, which administers the SAT, announced the test — typically an hours-long exam — would be shorter and online only starting in 2024. And that switch to online means students will wait days, not weeks, for their scores, the College Board said.

Students reported feeling less stressed out by the new format, which was used by some students during the pandemic, but it’s unclear how that might factor in their decisions on whether to test or not.

Editor’s note: This article was updated to reflect the fact that several SAT dates were canceled in the spring of 2020.

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Katie Kausch may be reached at kkausch@njadvancemedia.com. Tell us your coronavirus story or send a tip here.

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