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Another blow to the SAT: Essays and subject tests to be scrapped amid pandemic fallout

The College Board is dropping the SAT subject tests and optional essay and is revamping its general exam.
The College Board is dropping the SAT subject tests and optional essay and is revamping its general exam.
(Mario Tama / Getty Images)

In another sea change to the standardized testing industry, the College Board announced Tuesday that it planned to scrap the SAT subject tests and optional essay, saying the pandemic had accelerated the push to “reduce and simplify demands on students.”

The nation’s leading standardized testing organization also said it was developing a “more flexible SAT” that would be streamlined and delivered digitally.

“The pandemic has highlighted the importance of being innovative and adaptive to what lies ahead,” the College Board said in a statement. “We are committed to making the SAT a more flexible tool, and we are making substantial investments to do so.”

The changes will have little impact on students applying to the University of California, which has led the way in limiting the use of standardized testing — in particular the SAT and ACT. Critics oppose the tests as biased based on race, income and parent education level, while a UC faculty study found it may boost the admission chances of disadvantaged students.

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UC has already eliminated requirements for subject tests and is moving to phase out the general SAT and ACT; in addition, a court order has banned their use for current high school seniors. The UC Board of Regents will meet this week to discuss a new recommendation to permanently eliminate standardized testing as an admission requirement.

Nationwide, more than 1,000 colleges and universities have dropped testing requirements. The pandemic has accelerated that move away from the tests, as three-fourths of U.S. colleges made them optional for admissions this year because of limited testing opportunities.

“The College Board is simply acknowledging the economically inevitable: the number of colleges and universities requiring either the SAT ‘Essay’ or Subject Tests ... was rapidly declining pre-pandemic and was essentially zero in the current admissions cycle,” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.

“As a result, registration volumes for both exams were plunging. After significant revenue losses from multiple rounds of test cancellations over the past 10 months, it made no financial sense to continue trying to market its ever-less-popular products,” he said.

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The College Board said the SAT subject tests could be supplanted by its AP tests, which students choose to take typically after completing a college-level course in subjects ranging from chemistry to history during high school. The testing organization said the “expanded reach of AP and its widespread availability for low-income students and students of color” meant the subject tests were no longer necessary.

“AP provides students rich and varied opportunities to showcase their knowledge and skills through college-level coursework,” the College Board said. “Courses like AP Computer Science Principles ... provide the type of hands-on learning experiences and practical, real-world work that colleges want to see from students.”

The College Board also said there were other ways students could demonstrate their mastery of essay writing but that the general SAT would continue to measure writing and editing skills.

Students can take the SAT with essay through the June 2021 SAT administration. The College Board also said it would open opportunities for students in the class of 2022 to take the SAT this year by giving them seats that would otherwise go to those taking subject tests and possibly expanding capacity and test administrations this fall.

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“There’s still a clear demand from students to take the SAT as a way to show their strengths to colleges,” the College Board said.


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