College Board Discontinues SAT Subject Tests and Optional SAT Essay

The College Board announced on January 19 that the SAT subject tests and the optional SAT essay will no longer be administered to students.

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By Shirley Tan

The College Board announced on January 19 that SAT subject tests and the optional SAT essay will no longer be administered to students. These removals stem from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made it difficult for the College Board to administer in-person standardized exams. Many were unsurprised by the change as colleges have started becoming test-optional amid the pandemic.

The SAT subject tests are college admissions exams that assess a student’s knowledge in one of the 20 subject areas offered, while the optional SAT essay is a 50-minute-long timed essay requiring students to read a passage and analyze the techniques the author used to build an argument.

Director of College Counseling Jeffrey Makris noted that since these exams have been optional and were becoming less significant to the college application process as more colleges stopped requiring them, they would eventually phase out. “The exams were canceled and no longer offered because they had already lost their place in the process. They weren’t worth [the] College Board keeping them alive, investing all their money in, marketing them, and administering them all that when colleges [...] didn’t really need them anymore,” Makris said. “The big thing to remember is that if these exams were still a significant factor, they would never have cancelled them, so the colleges aren’t looking for a replacement for these factors because they’ve already moved past them.”

Many students supported the removal of the SAT essay. “I’ve taken the essay, but I think that it makes sense for the essay to just be scrapped altogether. Especially seeing as it’s already optional and most schools don’t care about whether you take it or not, the essay was becoming a bit obsolete,” junior Christine Lin said in an e-mail interview. “The essay just seems very formulaic and I can understand why [the College Board] decided to get rid of it and just have one uniform test for everyone to take.”

Some view the change positively as they no longer have to spend time on the SAT subject tests. “When you had the subject tests, you would have to at least put some time into studying for that subject test and I think now, you get more time to look into APs and your extracurriculars,” Bronx High School of Science junior Ahanaf Samin said.

Others felt impartial about the changes. “I do think that it would’ve been a good boost on my application to look at it and another thing to consider for me is that a lot of the colleges I [will] apply to sometimes [...] don’t even look at the essay on the SAT [...] so I don’t think it necessarily hinders my application process too much,” Bronx High School of Science sophomore Sabiha Sinthia said.

With the removal, however, many students believe that there will be a larger focus on Advanced Placement (AP) test scores. “Without the SAT subject tests, I imagine colleges would put more emphasis on AP tests or Regents exams which places additional stress on me,” sophomore Cynthia Chang said in an e-mail interview.

Reflecting such concern, some teachers hope that there will not be an overemphasis on AP exams. “If it were up to me, I’d completely do away with AP classes at Stuyvesant and offer more ‘advanced/honors’ courses and electives that students can opt into,” physics teacher Thomas Miner said in an e-mail interview. “[So as not to] limit ourselves to the College Board’s narrow prescription of our subject matter by calling our courses AP, with all that that registered trademark name entails.”

Others, however, are not expecting much change in the way AP exams are viewed. “There has already been a large emphasis on AP exams and courses, especially at Stuy, so I don’t think the absence of the subject tests will have any large effect on that,” Lin said. “It seems like a mindset we’ve already been shifting towards for a long time and I’m not really surprised that it happened.”

Following the removal, Executive Director of College Programs at Kaplan Isaac Botier (’02) believes that students will be able to direct their efforts toward AP exams instead. “For college applicants, this shift allows [students] to focus more on AP tests that can help them secure college credit and win merit-based aid,” Botier said in an e-mail interview. “Motivated students will continue to learn and excel in those areas in school [...] and many also learn these subjects in Advanced Placement courses.”

Editor-in-Chief of Princeton Review Robert Franek echoed similar thoughts: “Students will not be put at a disadvantage because of the substantive nature of the AP courses that they’re taking across the globe. It was a shrinking, shrinking number of students that took the SAT subject tests,” he said. “The [College Board] has made that direct pivot to say that their 38 AP exams are a good foil for the SAT subject test’s removal.”

Others, however, feel that the change will have a long-term negative impact. “The real reason the subject testing happens in the first place is because you want to place out of a prerequisite class. There’s going to be a lot of students who are going to wind up going to college and end up taking five years to get a four year degree,” founder of Kweller Test Preparation Frances Kweller said. “We had students actively preparing for these tests. It’s really sad to watch them destroy these academic standards. It’s just hard to watch.

With the removal of the essay and subject tests, Makris believes that college applications will start to boil down to the grades of the applicant. “Grades have always been more important than test scores because grades show more than just how well you perform in a three-hour sitting,” Makris said. “There’s a lot that goes into it. There’s academic ability certainly, but also persistence, engagement, your ability to handle challenges, so your course grades have been statistically a better predictor of college grade point average and graduation rates than the SAT [subject tests] have ever been, and that’s going to continue to be the grades.”

With the elimination of the SAT subject tests, some teachers hope that less emphasis on a standardized curriculum will allow for more room to teach unique topics. “The SAT II curriculum certainly creates a great foundation for students, but it also crushes some of the creativity and excitement of biology and all of the new developments occurring in the field,” biology teacher Marianne Prabhu said in an e-mail interview. “I hope we can find a middle ground between infusing more diverse biological history and project-based learning with some of the details and facts from the traditional curriculum.”

Overall, many were relieved at the elimination of both exams. “I don’t really [foresee] there being any huge changes to [the] way AP classes [are] taught,” Lin said. “I’m sure the absence of the subject tests will give teachers more leeway and freedom in deciding what is best to teach students. I don’t actually mind [them] being removed, and in a way, I’m glad [they were].”