Last week, on January 19, College Board announced discontinuing SAT Subject Tests and optional SAT Essay. At the same time, they have promised an overhaul to make the core SAT digital and more flexible (read: resilient to possible future emergencies and disruptions.)
This definitely isn't the most groundbreaking change in the educational system that we have witnessed lately. Still, it's a big one, so it attracted a lot of press attention. In their announcement, College Board stated that the main reason for this was to reduce demands on students. The organization stresses that pandemic didn't cause this decision but rather precipitated a process that was already underway. Yet is it entirely true?
Why Kill Subject Tests?
College Board links this decision to the shortage of locations under the current restrictions. Like most of us, the organization has faced immense challenges as pandemic broke out. This October, over 154,000 students were prevented from taking SAT as they intended to due to lockdown measures – with another 124,000 let down again this December.
To place students willing to take the SAT, College Board plans redistributing seats and facilities that would have been accommodating Subject Test takers. Saving the SAT – College Board's primary breadwinner – is a sound business decision. However, I must point out that the pandemic pushed them to kill products with already dwindling popularity.
The truth is, Subject Tests were gradually eclipsed by Advanced Placement exams anyway. The two have considerable overlap, while APs provide more information about students' knowledge and skill in a particular subject. Still, while some students see Subject Tests as unnecessary hassle giving nothing in return, others bemoan this lost opportunity to boost their application.
They have reasons to be worried. When it comes to hyper-selective schools, every bit of information can sway the chances in your favor. This "metrics hoarding" approach is probably the only explanation why highly selective institutions were still recommending or even demanding Subject Tests.
Meanwhile, most colleges have dropped them from the lists of things they consider on the application. Over the years, many admission experts have voiced their doubts about Subject Tests' correlation with students' performance at college. Katie Burns, an admissions counselor and formerly senior assistant director of admissions at MIT, is also skeptical about this. She agrees that Subject Tests could provide extra confidence and give students who underperformed on AP test another chance to show their mastery. However, she notes: "I have not found the subject tests to be very predictive of a student's aptitude or potential for success in a particular subject."
Burns also believes that school grades do a better job of showing students' work ethic and potential. They reflect how he or she systematically studies, prepares for tests, and participates in classes. On top of school grades, there are still the APs, for which students will have more time and energy now.
Moreover, subsidized by local and state programs, APs are more accessible for low-income students from under-resourced schools. APs have been enjoying steady growth in popularity over the past decade and lauded by equity advocates for their potential to match talented students with merit-based aid.
What About Optional Essay?
As for the SAT essays, it seems hardly anyone will miss them. College officials say there are plenty of ways to assess applicants' writing skills. Moreover, essay scores never really became a part of the review process.
With the personal statement, school-specific writing supplements, and other materials submitted to target colleges, the SAT essay indeed seems redundant. Even if some argue that students resort to writing help online for augmenting their application, tasks on the SAT Reading and Writing and Language tests are sufficient to predict students' language proficiency anyway.
Students won't be disappointed by the essay's departure either. Only about 12% of students taking the SAT in 2017 opted for the essay. Since then, many colleges dropped their SAT essay demands altogether, including prestigious schools like Harvard University and the University of California.
SAT's Future Is Hazy
Is the discontinuation of the Essay question and Subject Tests only a canary in the coal mine? After all, it does look like College Board decided to scrap them in the attempt to appease growingly anti-test public sentiment and preserve the status quo for their main product.
Last spring, most colleges responded to the pandemic by adopting test-optional or test-blind admission policies. This seemed like an adequate temporary measure designed to accommodate students through the hectic and stressful time.
Yet will things come back to the way they used to be when the pandemic is behind us? After all, some colleges have already extended SAT/ACT-optional policies for three years – possibly, a testing period before dropping the requirement for good. Does this mean that SAT (and the rival ACT) will become redundant? It's too early to say, but the future of standardized testing looks hazy.
Trinity Washington University is one of the private colleges in D.C. that has dropped test requirements for admissions. Its president, Pat McGuire, says that although elimination of Subject Tests and SAT essay is a step in the right direction, it's not nearly enough. She adds, "Right now, the SAT is simply a high barrier that funnels students without much concern for what happens to them once they get through the barrier." In her opinion, the right solution would be a complete elimination of SAT and the development of innovative strategies to assess student's competencies across their entire life. This will match them with suitable programs more effectively.
Rod Bugarin, a college consulting firm founder, supports this view. He says that College Board's tests aren't evolving with the times and losing their relevance. According to him, modern-day admission leaders, who work with students personally, see College Board as obsolete "as a typewriter or rotary phone."
However, a lucrative test prep industry that gives the advantage to well-off students and schools won't go away in a day. Robert J. Massa, the co-founder of Enrollment Intelligence Now, believes that test-optional policies will remain in place in the majority of institutions, except highly selective ones. Students willing to gain an edge in the admission process will supply continuing demand for SAT and ACT.