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The College Board eliminates SAT Subject Tests and optional essay

Applicants are encouraged to take Advanced Placement exams in place of the subject tests

The College Board announced Jan. 19 that it will discontinue SAT Subject Tests and the optional essay section on the SAT, marking a significant change to the status quo of standardized testing in college admissions. 

While the tests offered colleges an understanding of an applicant’s knowledge in certain subjects based on one standard scale, critics contended that the tests had waned in popularity in recent years. In their place, the College Board said it will further emphasize its Advanced Placement tests, citing their “widespread availability,” particularly among communities of low-income students and students of color. 

Colleges began to rely less on subject tests years ago in the admissions process, said Nancy Griesemer, a private college counselor in Fairfax County, Virginia. One hint that the tests were on the way out, Griesemer said, came when the College Board overhauled the SAT in 2015 without making changes to the subject tests, further convincing colleges to continue “backing away” from them.

Numbers released by the College Board show a steady decline in popularity in the past decade: in 2011, 312,000 students took subject tests, but by 2017, only 219,000 took them. As the number of test takers dropped, the average scores increased, especially on certain tests,  — discouraging applicants who received what would previously be considered a “decent percentile” from submitting their scores to colleges, Griesemer said. That, in turn, partially led to fewer colleges requesting the scores.

Hannah Jennings ’24 experienced that scenario while applying early decision to Brown in fall 2019. After seeing that the University recommended, but did not require, the submission of two SAT Subject Tests, she signed up at the last minute for two STEM-focused exams but never submitted them.

“I didn’t get the score I wanted,” Jennings said. “I was worried. Brown said ‘recommended,’ but I didn’t really know what that meant. I was like, ‘Should I be stressed?’”

Beginning with the class of 2025, the University stopped recommending students submit subject tests, a separate decision from temporarily waiving their SAT and ACT requirements this past admissions cycle.

“Access and equity,” Griesemer said, also factored into the College Board’s decision: Some students were unaware of colleges requesting test scores, while others couldn’t afford another round of standardized testing.

University Professor of Economics and International and Public Affairs John Friedman, who has written about income segregation within higher education, wrote in an email to The Herald that he didn’t think the elimination of subject tests alone would have a significant impact on access to higher education.

“To the extent that it does have an effect, the elimination cuts both ways,” Friedman said. “Higher income applicants are more likely to have access to subject tests, but they are likely more impactful for low-income applicants since they have fewer other markers of academic quality in their record,” citing the example of schools with fewer AP course offerings.

The announcement, though, made clear that the College Board will at least try to establish AP exams as the replacement for subject tests — for reasons both financial and practical, Griesemer said.

“The subject test … wasn’t producing revenue,” she noted. “The College Board has to think about its long-term survival.”

The College Board makes money both off the AP examinations and selling the curriculums to high schools — and increasing numbers of students have participated in AP programming over the past decade.

But increasing reliance on AP tests creates new hurdles for applicants: for one, numerous private schools no longer teach AP courses, though some still administer AP tests.

Jennings counted herself in that group: Her private high school in Los Angeles didn’t teach the AP curriculum. 

“It would make sense for people who actually have to take the AP test to use that” over subject tests, she said. But given that Jennings’s school did not offer the tests, she said she “would have been kind of concerned” had colleges requested AP tests in place of subject tests.

Timing presents another problem: Most high school students, Griesemer noted, don’t take AP tests, which occur annually in the spring, until their senior year — and others never took APs in the first place, participating instead in International Baccalaureate curricula. The College Board, she expects, will begin “encouraging earlier participation” and “adding subjects” so students get scores earlier in their high school careers to submit to colleges.

The discontinuation of subject tests also creates an unexpected wrinkle in next year’s admissions process. A small number of applicants for next year’s cycle took subject tests before their recent, immediate discontinuation. Colleges, Griesemer added, will have to decide if they’ll even consider subject test scores they receive next year.

It remains unclear how the discontinuation will affect Brown’s admissions process; the Admission Office did not respond to a request for comment by press time.


Will Kubzansky

Will Kubzansky is the 133rd editor-in-chief and president of the Brown Daily Herald. Previously, he served as a University News editor overseeing the admission & financial aid and staff & student labor beats. In his free time, he plays the guitar and soccer — both poorly.

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