Two major stress points in the grueling rituals of college admission testing are vanishing this year: the optional essay-writing section of the SAT and the supplementary exams in various fields known as SAT subject tests.
The College Board announced Tuesday it will discontinue those assessments. Citing the coronavirus crisis, officials said the pandemic has “accelerated a process already underway at the College Board to simplify our work and reduce demands on students.”
The testing organization, based in New York, also revealed the launch of a process to revise the main SAT, aiming to make the admission test “more flexible” and “streamlined” and enable students to take the exam digitally instead of with pencil and paper.
There were no further details available on how the main SAT might be changed. David Coleman, chief executive of the College Board, said more information would be coming in April.
The pandemic, which shuttered schools last March and continues to disrupt all levels of education, has created unprecedented turmoil for the SAT and the rival ACT admission test. Many college-bound students have struggled since last spring to find testing centers available at the right time and place.
With some exceptions, colleges and universities have ended or temporarily suspended testing requirements. Some college admission leaders have concluded that SAT or ACT scores are not needed to choose a class and that testing requirements might deter otherwise worthy applicants. Others are making temporary concessions to the reality of the pandemic upheaval and uneven access to testing.
In 2020, the College Board said, students filed 2.2 million registrations to take the SAT on a weekend. But only about 900,000 tests were taken during those sessions as numerous exam centers closed for public health reasons, sometimes with little notice. Hundreds of thousands more SATs were administered last year through publicly funded programs during school days.
Even before the pandemic, the subject tests and the optional essay were losing influence. Fewer schools were requiring applicants to take them, and many experts questioned their value.
The subject tests, lasting an hour apiece, used multiple-choice questions to cover discrete topics such as math, literature, history, biology, chemistry, physics and various foreign languages. The maximum score for each was 800.
These tests long served a niche role in admissions as a way for students to amass extra credentials showing their prowess for ultracompetitive schools. For many years, Ivy League schools and others, including Georgetown University, recommended, encouraged or accepted subject test scores in addition to the scores they required from the main SAT or ACT. In the high school Class of 2017, roughly 220,000 students chose to take at least one subject test.
But usage of the subject tests has dwindled. The tests also have seemed in some ways to overlap with the College Board’s Advanced Placement testing program. AP tests, which are longer and include free-response questions, have proliferated in recent years. So a student who scored well on an AP calculus test, for example, might wonder why it would be necessary to also take an SAT subject test in math.
“AP provides a much richer and more flexible way for students to distinguish themselves,” Coleman said. The wide availability of AP programs, he said, make subject tests less necessary. More than 1.2 million students in the high school Class of 2019 took at least one AP test.
The College Board said it will no longer offer subject tests to U.S. students, effective immediately, and it will phase them out for international students by next summer.
The main SAT, which takes three hours, not including breaks, has one section on mathematics and another on evidence-based reading and writing. Each is worth up to 800 points. The reading and writing section covers editing and other language skills through multiple-choice questions.
The optional essay adds 50 minutes to the main test. Its score is reported separately and does not factor into the main score.
The modern SAT first included an essay prompt in 2005, at the urging of some in higher education, including leaders of the University of California, who believed that an independent measure of free-response writing was essential for admissions.
The most recent version of the essay assessment, which debuted in 2016, is an analytic writing exercise that asks students to respond to a text. The College Board has said it is meant to resemble a “typical college writing assignment.” The ACT also includes an optional essay.
But enthusiasm for these essays has waned. Many colleges have found the essay scores are not useful or necessary for admissions. In 2018, Harvard University and numerous other highly selective schools dropped their requirement for students to submit an essay score. Last year, University of California officials took the same step as part of a larger policy shift to phase out use of the SAT and ACT.
Even though few schools still require the essay scores, many students fret over whether they should take the essay option, and whether their essay scores are good enough to achieve their goals. Now, the College Board is pulling the plug on the essay in all but a few places.
The SAT essay will continue to be offered through June to anyone who wants to take it, the College Board said. After that, it will be available only in certain states that use the SAT for school accountability measurement and offer the test during the school day. The College Board said Delaware and Oklahoma are two states that use the essay in that way.
Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid at Yale University, applauded the College Board’s announcement. Yale recently stopped considering SAT subject test scores, he said. Quinlan said the SAT’s optional essay had limited value. “The essay score never really became a part of our review process,” Quinlan said.
Quinlan said he is inclined to favor revisions to the SAT that will make it more flexible and accessible and available in a digital format. “They’re going to have to plan, take time, do their due diligence,” he said of the College Board. “It will be a lift, but I think they are up for it.”