Covid-19 has accelerated changes to the SAT exam that have been percolating for years. College Board, the organization that produces the SAT and conducts testing, announced that Subject Tests will no longer be offered, and that the exam would not have an optional essay section in the future. The Board also stated that they’re developing a new “streamlined” version of the SAT that can be administered online to students at home. The ACT exam, the only competitor of the SAT on a national scale, has already announced that they are changing their programs in similar ways.
College Board’s Stated Motivation
The College Board says that their motive is to reduce the burden of redundant exams and unnecessary anxiety on students, stating, “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. We’re making some changes to reduce demands on students.”
Some admissions experts have observed that doing away with Subject Tests is a step in the right direction: eliminating standardized testing in college admissions. But most colleges still require or accept SAT scores and consider them an accurate predictor of future academic performance. Skeptical admissions experts maintain that the GPA and the rigor of a high school curriculum should be the only academic criteria in admissions. Focusing exclusively on them is what will reduce pressure on students.
College Board’s Actual Motivation
The College Board is a not-for-profit organization that was formed in 1899 allegedly to expand access to higher education. It has more than 6,000 institutional members that use its services and govern it. The Board’s revenue, derived from member and student fees, exceeds $1 billion annually. There are 1,600 employees at its headquarters in New York and in its field offices.
Although devoted to serving the needs of its members rather than making a profit, the College Board has a bias toward self-preservation. The leadership is aware that standardized tests have increasingly been viewed as discriminating against racial minorities and the economically disadvantaged. The Board’s leaders have been tracking the adoption of test-optional policies that has resulted from this perception of bias.
Subject Tests vs. Advanced Placement
The motivating factor behind the decision to cease offering the Subject Tests is that the College Board stands to gain from the movement away from the tests as credentials or requirements for admission. Another factor is that Subject Tests will be replaced by GPA and the strength of curriculum as the only two academic criteria for admissions. The Board plans to shift to their Advanced Placement (AP) program as the most common way for an applicant to prove the rigor of their coursework.
Since 1955, the College Board’s AP program has been available for high school students who want to demonstrate their capabilities in the 40 AP subjects. More than 22,000 high schools offered at least some of the AP courses last year. The Board establishes the syllabi for the courses, develops the exams, and audits each AP program to assure compliance.
About 85 percent of colleges weigh AP courses and exams substantially heavier than regular courses. The AP courses are optional and, if a student is sufficiently confident that he or she can take a course’s final exam in May and pass it with a score of 3, 4, or 5, it counts as an AP credit even if they didn’t take the course. On the other hand, if a student takes an AP course but doesn’t score a 3, 4, or 5, it’s purpose as proof-of-rigor to colleges is foregone.
There’s at least one valid objection to the substitution of the AP program for Subject Tests. Subject Tests were offered five times per year and students were advised to take them after completing a high school course in the relevant subject. Last year, only a handful of colleges required applicants to submit Subject Test scores in specific subjects. Ten highly selective colleges “recommended” them, which essentially means that they required them. The other students that took the tests did so as a voluntary way to burnish their admissions credentials, especially in their intended field of study.
AP courses polish credentials because they’re more demanding than regular high school courses; it’s estimated that they require about 30 percent more work. AP students are expected to delve more deeply into topics through research, practical applications, and critical thinking. Colleges look favorably on AP courses and exam results as proof that an applicant is capable of doing college work.
There’s no set number of AP courses that a student should take, but many Independent Educational Consultants advise those aspiring to attend highly selective colleges to take three or four of them. For those aspiring to attend the most elite colleges, six or more are recommended.
AP exams must be passed prior to senior year in order to be reflected on a student’s college applications. This requires elite college aspirants to pass an average of two AP exams annually in their freshman, sophomore, and juniors years. That’s a tall order… one that isn’t consistent with the College Board’s stated purpose of reducing the pressure on students.