That has been especially true for the SAT since a redesigned version of the three-hour exam was launched in 2016. The College Board, which owns the test, has expanded its market share through contracts with states and school systems that enable students to take the SAT free.
The ACT competes with the College Board for those contracts. Some states offer only the SAT in school, others only the ACT. Some provide no funds for testing in school, and some leave the choice up to local schools.
For generations, students took the SAT on a weekend and had to pay for it themselves or obtain a fee waiver. The fee this year is $49.50, or $64.50 for the option with a 50-minute essay exam.
But this much-feared ritual for college-bound students is rapidly evolving as public agencies seek to widen access to admission testing. Nearly 960,000 students in the class of 2019 took the SAT on a school day. They represented 43 percent of 2.2 million overall who took the test.
For the class of 2018, the in-school testing share was 36 percent, and for the class of 2017, it was 27 percent.
School-day participants are more likely than others to attend high-poverty schools and come from families unfamiliar with college. Forty-five percent of school-day test-takers had parents without a college degree, according to the College Board, compared with 30 percent of those who took the SAT on the weekend only.
“SAT School Day gives students nationwide increased access to higher education,” said Cyndie Schmeiser, a senior adviser to the College Board’s chief executive. “At its core, SAT School Day strives to remove barriers for students who would not or could not test on a weekend.”
Not all are certain that it’s wise to cede precious high school time for an admission test.
Mark Hatch, vice president for enrollment at Colorado College, said he worries about “an overemphasis” on test scores. “There is a frenzy out there,” he said, with large numbers of students who report “anxiety or depression and are terrifically stressed out.” His selective liberal arts college is one of a growing number that do not require ACT or SAT scores. The test-optional movement has accelerated since the University of Chicago, one of the nation’s most competitive, dropped its testing requirement last year.
Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia illuminate contrasting approaches to the SAT.
The D.C. government has funded the SAT in regular and charter public schools for several years. An estimated 94 percent of D.C. students in the class of 2019, including those in private schools, took the test. Their average score was 975 — 495 on the reading-writing section and 480 on math. The combined result was slightly lower than the 977 average from the year before. D.C. students whose parents hold college degrees scored far higher than those whose parents do not.
For many, taking the SAT preserves options.
“We want students to be prepared to make the choice to go to college while they are in their senior year or beyond,” said Erin Ward Bibo, the deputy chief of college and career programs for D.C. Public Schools. “We find that people don’t often make their postsecondary plans until their senior year. And there is a lot of swirl in that decision-making.”
Maryland does not fund statewide SAT testing. But school-day testing is available in 16 school systems, including those in Montgomery, Prince George’s, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties and the city of Baltimore.
Those programs have fueled a sharp rise in SAT participation. About 82 percent of Maryland’s Class of 2019, public and private, took the SAT, up from 76 percent the year before. This year’s average was 1058 (535 in reading-writing and 523 in math), down from 1080 in 2018.
Virginia does not fund statewide SAT testing and has lower participation in the school-day movement than Maryland. About 68 percent of the state’s graduating class took the SAT, unchanged from the previous year’s share. Average scores this year were 567 in reading-writing and 551 in math. The combined result (due to rounding) was 1119, up 2 points from the year before.
Virginia school officials noted that about 4,300 students took the SAT during the school day at 49 high schools. Fairfax County school officials have said they are considering the idea for the 2020-2021 school year. State Superintendent of Public Instruction James F. Lane said the initiative “is especially important for students in rural communities and for students who work on weekends to help support their families.”
Debbie Truong and Perry Stein contributed to this report.