SAT frenzy

Overview of the recent changes that College Board made. What is the impact of removing SAT Subject Tests/Essay and the reasoning for the modification?

Graphic by Emma Liu ’22/Staff

As of January 19, the College Board has discontinued SAT Subject Tests and the optional SAT essay. This comes in the wake of a rapid decrease in the number of students taking any version of the SAT since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and many announcements from colleges that they will not be requiring the SAT for at least the next several years. 

There are several reasons behind this shift. In their official statement, the College Board claimed that subject tests are no longer relevant due to the widespread availability of AP exams, which similarly allow students to showcase their skills in a particular subject. Also by discontinuing the subject tests, they will be able to allocate those seats at testing centers to students who want to take the general SAT. They also claimed that the optional essay is unnecessary because the SAT Reading and Writing sections already measure students’ writing abilities. However, it’s important to note that both the subject tests and the optional essay have become increasingly irrelevant to the college admissions process in the last several years, and this phenomenon has only been exacerbated due to the pandemic. Since the essay became optional in 2016, very few schools have required or even recommended it for potential applicants. And since the pandemic made it extremely difficult for students to take the SAT at all, many of those schools have abandoned the essay. The University of California, which notably required the SAT Essay portion, announced in the fall that it will be test optional for the next five application cycles, eventually introducing their own UC-specific standardized exam in 2025. Similarly, very few colleges required applicants to take SAT subject tests, and most of those that required or even strongly recommended them have adopted much more lenient policies for the 2020-2021 application cycle. The College Board presents their discontinuation of the essay and subject tests as an independent decision made for the sake of convenience, but it comes after these tests, and the SAT as a whole, have spent the last year rapidly falling out of popularity. Several colleges have begun phasing the SAT out of their admissions requirements entirely, so it’s possible that the simplification of the SAT may be an attempt by the College Board to convince students to continue taking it. Though the College Board is classified as a nonprofit, it tends to bring in around $1 billion a year as a result of the monopoly it has built in test administration. It’s an industry, and like the cable industry or the video rental industry, it’s floundering to keep up with changing times. 

It’s hard to say what impact these changes will have on the College Board’s success, but there’s no doubt that they will change the college application process for students at LM. 38.8 percent of this year’s seniors took the optional SAT Essay, while 41.4 percent took at least one subject test. The majority of both groups only took the subject tests or essay because schools they were interested in required or recommended them. Meanwhile, 25.7 percent of this year’s junior class had been planning to take the SAT with the essay, while 38 percent planned to take at least one subject test. When asked about additional thoughts, most juniors seemed relieved about the change, with one student claiming that they were less stressed now since “some of the colleges I’m looking at wanted subject tests, so I’m happy to not have to go through the hassle of taking them at the end of this year.” However, others raised concerns that without subject tests or the essay, colleges would have trouble distinguishing between students, and would rely more heavily on AP exams. This increased reliance on AP courses places more pressure on students to not only take AP courses, but to perform well on the often rigorous exams that accompany them. AP scores are typically not critical to college admissions, intended more to allow students to earn college credit or skip low-level courses when they enter college, but it’s possible they could become more heavily considered in the absence of subject tests. Another student pointed out that some of their peers have already put in hours of prep work for these exams, and now that they are no longer offered, they’ve “essentially wasted their time.” While the SAT Essay will remain available through June 2021, it’s evident that students who have already dedicated time to studying for subject tests are out of luck. 

The discontinuation of the SAT Essay portion and SAT Subject Tests could be a blessing for students both at LM and across the country, or it could lead to consequences that are less than preferable. Either way, it’s clear that the way prospective students are expected to prove their worth to colleges is changing, and the College Board is doing whatever it can to adapt to this changing environment. Whatever the outcome of the abandonment of previous testing standards, this change is only the start of what will likely be a years-long evolution of a once unquestioned standardized testing standard.