Category: SAT Subject Tests

College Board discontinues SAT Subject Tests and Optional SAT Essay

Kaisar Alam, Ph.D.

© 2021 Prep Excellence. All rights reserved.

Today, January 19, 2021, the College Board made a major announcement that it is discontinuing the SAT subject tests and the SAT essay.

The cancellation of SAT subject tests in the U.S. is effective immediately. Students currently registered for a future subject test will have their registration fees refunded. Outside the U.S., College Board will offer two more administration of subject tests (May and June 2021) .

The optional SAT Essay will be discontinued after the June 2021 administration. Thereafter, it will continue to be available in the states where it is required as a part of SAT School Day administrations.

While the pandemic might have expedited their demise, the subject tests and the optional essay were losing ground for some time. In fact, the College Board announcement mentioned that the pandemic was a catalyst for these changes, “The pandemic accelerated a process already underway at the College Board to reduce and simplify demands on students.”

While the decision to discontinue the subject SATs does not affect the SAT immediately, the organization will reportedly focus its efforts on the AP exams and developing a more flexible, streamlined, and digital SAT, which would be administered at testing centers by live proctors.

No additional details are available on the upcoming changes to the main SAT. College Board attempted to develop an “at-home” digital SAT last year after the pandemic played havoc with test administration. David Coleman, CEO of the College Board, said it would provide more information in April, but provided no time frame for the digital SAT.

According to the College Board, there have been 2.2 million registrations for the weekend SAT in 2020. However, only about 900,000 tests were administered because of exam center closures due to coronavirus.

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

SAT Subject Tests

SAT subject tests were multiple-choice tests and were offered in 20 subjects like biology, chemistry, literature, mathematics, physics, US history, world history, and a few foreign languages. Each test lasted an hour and were scored out of 800.

While subject tests were not required by all universities in recent years, many students still submitted them to bolster their college applications. Ivy League and other top schools including Georgetown, Harvard, and Princeton required scores from the subject tests in addition to the SAT or ACT. Approximately 220,000 students from the high school Class of 2017 took one or more subject tests.

The importance of the subject tests, however, has gone down in recent years and few colleges still required the SAT subject tests. Furthermore, subject tests have a lot of overlaps the Advanced Placement (AP) exams, also offered by the College Board. AP exams have become widespread in recent years. Taking the AP subjects can help demonstrate the mastery of a subject and scoring high in the AP exams can provide college credits, which can help a student graduate faster and save money in college. According to the College Board, the widespread access means that SAT subject tests are “no longer necessary for students to show what they know.” Over 1.2 million students in the high school Class of 2019 took one or more AP tests.

The College Board CEO David Coleman said that the aim was to eliminate redundant exams and not to increase the number of students taking AP courses and tests. Coleman said, “anything that can reduce unnecessary anxiety and get out of the way is of huge value to us.”

There might be some unintended repercussions. For example, SAT subject tests allowed many students an opportunity to demonstrate mastery of a second language such as Spanish. These students will have to find other ways to accomplish the same.

SAT Essay

The SAT consists of reading, writing, and math and takes three hours excluding breaks. The optional essay was 50 minutes long and was scored separately.

The essay prompt was introduced in 2005. The current version of the SAT began along with a new essay in 2016. (The ACT also includes an optional essay.) For the SAT essay, the student has to read a passage and explain how the author made an argument to persuade an audience.

Since late 2019, I have advised against taking the SAT Essay (unless a student is applying to school requiring or at least recommending it, such as West Point and Howard). Many colleges have decided that the SAT essay scores were not useful for admissions decision. SAT essay was dropped as a requirement by Harvard and many other selective colleges in 2018. According to Jeremiah Quinlan, Yale University dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid, Yale recently stopped considering SAT subject test scores and the SAT essay score never really became a part of Yale’s review process. He also expressed support for a more flexible, accessible, and digitally available SAT.

Because the SAT Essay was graded manually and the graders had minutes to grade each Essay, objective grading might have been an issue. A 2005 New York Times article reported that Dr. Les Perelman of M.I.T. found that the old version of the essay rewarded long essays and the students were not penalized for factual errors. Dr. Perelman said about SAT Essay, “I would advise writing as long as possible and include lots of facts, even if they’re made up.” I am not aware of any such study for the 2016 version of the test; however, if one of my students was insistent on taking the SAT essay, I would advise him/her to write longer SAT essays to have a chance for a good score. Thankfully, the students will no longer have to worry about the SAT essay going forward.