College Board will Drop the SAT Essay and Subject Tests

Credit: The New York Times (reprint)


In the latest sign of trouble for the standardized testing empire that has played a major role in college applications for millions of students, the organization that produces the SAT said on Tuesday that it would scrap subject tests and the optional essay section, further scrambling the admissions process.

The move comes as the testing industry has been battered by questions about equity and troubled by logistical and financial challenges during the coronavirus pandemic.


Critics saw the changes not as an attempt to streamline the test-taking process for students, as the College Board portrayed the decision, but as a way of placing greater importance on Advanced Placement tests, which the board also produces, as a way for the organization to remain relevant and financially viable.


“The SAT and the subject exams are dying products on their last breaths, and I’m sure the costs of administering them are substantial,” said Jon Boeckenstedt, the vice provost for enrollment management at Oregon State University.


The main SAT, taken by generations of high school students applying to college, consists of two sections, one for math and the other for reading and writing. But since at least the 1960s, students have also had the option of taking subject tests to show their mastery of subjects like history, languages, and chemistry. Colleges often use the tests to determine where to place students for freshman courses, especially in the sciences and languages.


But the College Board said the subject tests have been eclipsed by the rise of Advanced Placement exams. At one point, A.P. courses were seen as the province of elite schools, but the board said on Tuesday that “the expanded reach of A.P. and its widespread availability for low-income students and students of color means the subject tests are no longer necessary.”


More than 22,000 schools offered A.P. courses in the 2019-20 school year, up from more than 13,000 two decades earlier, according to the College Board. There are some 24,000 public high schools in America.


The College Board said it would discontinue the essay section on the main SAT test because “there are other ways for students to demonstrate their mastery of essay writing,” including, it said, the test’s reading and writing portion. The essay section was introduced in 2005, and was considered among the most drastic changes to the SAT in decades. It came amid a broader overhaul of the test, which included eliminating verbal analogies that were a mainstay of SAT-prep courses.


Admissions officers hoped the essay would give them a way to look at original samples of students’ writing, to better evaluate their skills. It came to be criticized, however, for promoting an overly formulaic approach to writing and was made optional in 2016 as part of another redesign.


In recent years, the SAT has come under increasing fire from critics who say that standardized testing exacerbates inequities across class and racial lines. Some studies have shown that high school grades are an equal or better predictor of college success.


More than 1,000 four-year colleges did not require applicants to submit standardized test scores before the pandemic, and the number rose — at least temporarily — as the coronavirus forced testing centers to close and made it difficult for many students to safely take the test.


Perhaps the biggest hit came in May, when, following a lawsuit from a group of Black and Hispanic students who said the tests discriminated against them, the influential University of California system decided to phase out SAT and ACT requirements for its 10 schools, which include some of the nation’s most popular campuses.