College Board says goodbye to SAT essay, subject tests

As more colleges and universities adopt test-optional admission policies, and the pandemic continues to limit testing events, the College Board has announced it is eliminating the optional essay and subject tests from its SAT exam. 

The decision comes after a challenging year for both the College Board and prospective college applicants. According to Inside Higher Ed, in October 2020 alone, 154,000 students who were registered to take the SAT exam were unable to do so because of test center shutdowns. As recently as last month, facility closures prevented 124,000 students from taking the test. Similar setbacks have plagued the College Board’s competitor, ACT, as well. 

“The pandemic has highlighted the importance of being innovative and adaptive to what lies ahead,” College Board wrote in its statement outlining the changes. That announcement also mentioned plans to develop a “more flexible SAT—a streamlined, digitally delivered test that meets the evolving needs of students and higher education”—but did not provide additional details. 

A process already underway 

In the College Board’s decision, some observers saw the continued evolution of a testing industry that “has been battered by questions about equity and troubled by logistical and financial challenges during the coronavirus pandemic,” The New York Times writes.

Even prior to the pandemic, a wave of colleges and universities were reconsidering the role of standardized tests in their admission decisions. The University of California system’s May 2020 decision to phase out the SAT and ACT delivered “perhaps the biggest hit,” and the pandemic further dampened higher education’s attachment to test scores. 

Related: Most U.S. colleges have dropped ACT/SAT requirement for fall 2021 admission >

Demand for the subject tests also had waned. Inside Higher Ed reports that in 2017, 1.8 million high school students completed the SAT, but only 219,000 took a subject test. Moreover, the College Board has an alternative waiting in the wings: the organization also produces the Advanced Placement (AP) tests.

Meanwhile, commenting on the optional SAT Essay, which will sunset in June, the College Board said “that there are other ways for students to demonstrate their mastery of essay writing.”  

‘Good riddance’: Some stakeholders praise changes

Some education stakeholders applauded the College Board’s announcement as progress toward clearing students’ paths to college. 

“Good riddance,” Tara Miller, an Austin, Texas-based college and career counselor at Stephen F. Austin High School, wrote in a message to The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Extra tests are never about access and opportunity, but rather hurdles to the many students who were already starting the race from behind.” 

Angel B. Perez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling expressed similar sentiments, saying that “any move towards simplification and removing hurdles for students in this process is a step in the right direction.” 

Some caution that shrinking the SAT may not be panacea

Simply trading SAT subject tests for AP exams may not necessarily reduce strain on students—especially if they have disparate access to that curriculum, experts note. “This energy has to go somewhere,” says Adam Ingersoll, founder and principal of college-advising and test-prep organization, Compass Education Group. “Some of it will flow to heightened interest in APs and more pressure on schools to make AP-testing opportunities available to students.”

And without SAT scores in hand, home-schooled applicants and low-income students seeking merit scholarship aid may find themselves at a disadvantage. For example, while Loyola University Chicago and Clemson University shifted to test-optional policies, their merit scholarship applications still require test results. 

The scarcity of SAT testing sites during COVID-19 has put this issue into sharp relief, as some students “have gone as far as flying to another state to take a test at a site with an opening,” Politico reports, noting that such efforts are “not an option for students from low-income families, for whom scholarships tied to test scores are only more in demand given the pandemic’s gut punch to the economy.”

Bob Schaeffer, interim director of FairTest, tells Politico that this speaks to the need for deeper change. “When you rely on test scores to award scholarship aid, you’re giving the most money to the highest scorers who are from families who least need the money,” he says.

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