HomeAcademicsACT and SAT participation plummets among CHS students post-pandemic

ACT and SAT participation plummets among CHS students post-pandemic

Published April 4, 2024

BY AVERY PALSHAW

Following California State University and University of California schools no longer requiring applicants to submit standardized tests as of 2021, Carmel High School students’ participation in the SAT and ACT standardized tests has decreased from around 60% to between 10 and 20% participation, according to CHS counselors. 

Around the time of the pandemic, CSU and UC colleges stopped requiring the SAT and ACT, generally taken by juniors and seniors, citing concern by their governing boards that the tests were biased against racial minorities. While these tests continue to be viewed by many as unfair and outdated methods of assessing students, others believe standardized testing is a precise measure of a student’s academic abilities. 

“It’s the only accurate way to objectively evaluate students who come from different grade point average systems and different schools,” says CHS counselor Darren Johnston. “Some schools have International Baccalaureate programs, some have APs, some don’t have APs, so it’s really hard to evaluate students based on their GPA.” 

The SAT, which has recently moved to an online format, measures a student’s skills in reading, mathematics and writing, while the ACT is generally taken on paper and covers four academic skills areas, including English, mathematics, reading, science, and an optional writing portion.

California SAT Participation (graphic by AVERY PALSHAW)

ACT and SAT scores are commonly used for those applying to private colleges, certain out-of-state colleges or highly selective colleges. Some of the colleges that still require applicants to submit an ACT or SAT submission include Georgetown University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Florida, Purdue University and University of Tennessee, Knoxville. 

“The main benefit of taking it was that it encouraged me to apply to a wider variety of schools, especially those that accepted students with historically higher standardized test scores,” says 2023 CHS graduate and current Dartmouth College freshman Nathan Chen, who took the ACT. 

Senior Gia Panetta, who is committed to Harvard University, says she took the ACT because she knew she was going to be applying to a lot of private schools. 

“While the ACT and SAT were optional at the time I applied, it still provided a large boost because it shows you still went above and beyond to take it, to study for it and to prepare for it,” Panetta explains. “It not only shows academic success through your score, but also the perseverance and willingness to take on another academic challenge.” 

CHS counselors are in agreement that unless a student generally does well on tests and is looking to apply to highly selective colleges, they likely should not be taking the SAT or ACT.

“Coming out of COVID and coming out of all these changes, students don’t really want to go take a high-stakes test,” CHS counselor Jeff Rogers says. “The few kids that would want to do that are the ones that are great test-takers.”

Johnston notes that one of the best things students can do to determine whether to take standardized tests is to take the Practice SAT, offered to CHS students in their sophomore year, then decide based on their score if ACT or SAT preparation would be a good use of their time. 

“I ended up not taking either because [at] all the schools I applied to it was either optional or didn’t ask for them at all,” explains CHS 2023 graduate Astin Lathrop, who now attends University of Colorado Boulder. “I also know I’m a bad test taker and that my results wouldn’t show my true ability and understanding of topics.”

Senior Sophia Scattini, who intended to apply to University of Georgia, Athens, one of the few schools that still requires an SAT submission, says she originally was not planning on taking the SAT or ACT, but tried to last minute in order to apply.

“I put all this time into studying, but it was super last minute and that SAT ended up getting canceled, so I wasn’t even able to apply anyways,” says Scattini. 

From around 2010 until 2019, standardized tests became increasingly important as students were applying to a wider range of competitive schools, CHS counselors say. Following the UC and CSU schools not requiring these tests, the few students that did take them, got better scores, leading to an immense increase in score averages statewide. 

The ACT website reveals that an estimated 4% of California graduates tested for the ACT last year, while the national average was a 37% participation rate. California’s average composite score was 25.7 in 2023, compared to the national average of 19.5 from that same year. 

Since in-state tuition is significantly less than out-of-state tuition and some students prefer to be closer to home, a large number of CHS students will apply to UCs or CSUs, meaning that they cannot submit an ACT or SAT score to be considered in their decision. 

“I typically only recommend taking the ACT or SAT if the student is applying to highly selective schools and that student tends to perform relatively well on standardized tests,” says Johnston.

In some cases, students have taken the ACT or SAT regardless of them applying to the UCs or CSUs. 2022 graduate and current UCLA student Darrell Wang took the ACT, despite the UCs being test blind that year. 

“The benefit of taking the ACT would have been greater if I had applied to more private ‘target schools,’” Wang explains. 

Not only has the number of CHS students taking the ACT or SAT decreased significantly, California’s participation rate as a whole has plummeted within just four years. According to academic nonprofit organization College Board, in 2020, 67% of California high school students took the SAT, whereas in 2023 that percentage had dropped to merely 25%.  

As participation numbers in the ACT and SAT standardized tests diminish nationally in recent years, counselors question the role these tests will play in college admissions in future years.

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