Diverse Student Response to the Unexpected Cancelation of Subject Tests and SAT Essay Section

Esther Fu, Contributing Writer

Standardized test results are often an important part of the college admission process. Last month, the College Board, a “College Entrance Examination Board to expand access to higher education,” announced that they would permanently eliminate their subject tests, as well as the essay section of the SAT. “As students and colleges adapt to new realities and changes to the college admissions process, College Board is making sure our programs adapt with them,” the College Board explains in their statement. They continue, “The pandemic accelerated a process already underway at the College Board to reduce and simplify demands on students.”

Upon hearing the news, many students, including Maddie Yu-Phelps ’21, were enthusiastic about the announcement. Yu-Phelps tells the Register Forum, “My thoughts on the cancellation were mainly consisting of relief … I do have friends who need them for the majors they are interested in pursuing so I did feel bad for them. I think having them cancel … made things a lot better.”

Subject tests, typically used to boost and fulfill requirements in college applications, gave many students an alternative way to showcase their knowledge level, instead of taking the Advanced Placement (AP) tests, also administered by the College Board. Jean Lee, a freshman at Cornell University, shares, “I didn’t take AP tests because my high school [Boston University Academy] doesn’t use the AP curriculum. So, I could only quantifiably demonstrate my aptitude in certain academic areas through the subject tests[;] … they made my college application stronger … [and] I don’t understand why they were discontinued.” 

The College Board defends its decision: “We’re adapting to respond to the changing needs of students and colleges … The expanded reach of AP and its widespread availability means the Subject Tests are no longer necessary.” A Harvard Crimson article raises the argument, “In eliminating the SAT Subject Tests, College Board could make AP exams … more profitable.” Along with the student community, many agree that the $69 difference in the two types of tests could increase the profit of the College Board’s AP programs. AP tests, ranging between two to three hours, cost $95, while subject tests cost $26. It is likely that there will be an increase in AP test-takers, making the speculations likely to be true.

While the SAT essay was an optional portion of the SAT, a small number of colleges required high school students to take this section of the exam. Lee adds, “Thinking in terms of demand and supply, I am not surprised that the SAT essay was discontinued. The colleges I applied to did not require the SAT essay. … In general, I think the essay portion in standardized testing is not great because school did not teach me how to do that style of writing.” Nevertheless, reports show that about 1.2 million students in the class of 2020 took the SAT essay section.

This cancelation comes down to one reason: the pandemic. Since March, countless students have not been able to take the SAT or ACT due to the closing of testing centers. Even if students were able to take the SAT, they are required to wear masks, distracting them from their tests. Therefore, a majority of colleges have decided to go test-optional for this year’s admissions cycle. Yu-Phelps comments, “Through all this chaotic time, a silver lining has definitely been the fact that I didn’t have to take the SAT. … the schools I was applying to [would have] needed them for academic acceptance.”

Furthermore, some colleges, including MIT and schools in the University of California system, have revealed that they are permanently discontinuing the consideration of SAT or ACT scores on applications. “The SAT … does not bring about as much value as it should and personally I would love if one day standardized tests weren’t required for admittance into college,” Yu-Phelps expresses. Looking forward, with the elimination of these previously crucial tests and the unpredictable effects of the pandemic, there will be a progression toward college admissions favoring a student’s personality, qualities, and achievements, as opposed to their test scores.