College Board Discontinues SAT Subject Tests and Optional Essay Section

The College Board will discontinue SAT Subject Tests and the optional essay section on the SAT, according to a recent announcement on Jan. 19. The decision-making process was accelerated as testing centers closed during the pandemic and led many colleges, including Amherst, to make the tests optional or to permanently suspend consideration of them. The College Board’s decision reflects a broader trend among undergraduate institutions to ease the college admissions process during the pandemic. 

In the spring, the college enacted a number of new admissions protocols for the 2020-21 admission cycle in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The admissions office adapted test-optional policies for three years, stopped considering SAT Subject Tests and waived the $400 enrollment deposit for the class of 2024. That decision, made on April 6, 2020, followed the cancellation of all tests administered by the College Board — including the SAT and the ACT — in the spring through June. 

According to the College Board, “The expanded reach of [Advanced Placement exams (APs)] and [their] widespread availability for low-income students and students of color means the Subject Tests are no longer necessary for students to show what they know.” Students in the U.S. who are scheduled to take a subject test will be automatically refunded. However, international students may sign up for two more administrations to be held in May and June of 2021. 

The College Board’s decision doesn’t affect the main SAT, which will still be administered and considered in a student’s application to Amherst. 

Before they were eliminated, there were more than 20 SAT Subject Tests designed to test students’ knowledge in a particular subject area. The SAT Subject Tests had been declining in popularity as a requirement for college applications even before the pandemic, with registrations for the test falling by 8 percent between 2016 and 2019

The essay portion of the SAT, on the other hand, was first introduced in 2005 to assess a student’s essay-writing abilities. However, most colleges’ admissions teams, including Amherst’s, gauge the same skill through application essays. “There are other ways for students to demonstrate their mastery of essay writing,” the announcement said. Students may still take the SAT with Essay through June of 2021.

The College Board will be investing in a “more flexible SAT” following the discontinuation of the Subject Tests and Essay. The details of what this test might look like are unclear, though it aims to be a “digitally delivered test that meets the evolving needs of students and higher education.”

Even though the Subject Tests were optional application materials prior to 2020, many students felt obligated to take them as it was believed to enhance their application if they did well. Isabel Hardy ’24 was one student who applied to Amherst with SAT Subject Tests in chemistry and math. 

Her high school advisors warned that Subject Tests were necessary, Hardy said. Failing to have them, they said, would be detrimental to the success of her application. Her teachers feared that not having the scores would lessen her competitiveness in the eyes of the admissions committee.

Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Matt McGann hoped to eliminate some of the confusion with the decision to stop considering them in 2020. “Rather than sending mixed messages to students about whether or not they wanted them to take the tests, we decided it would be better and more equitable to make a firm statement that we would not consider them,” he said.

The number of students who submitted Subject Test scores had been declining for the last few years, McGann added. 

The College Board still offers Advanced Placement (AP) exams as a measure of a student’s knowledge in specific subject areas. Hardy took Chemistry and Math 2 SAT Subject Tests, because she had already taken the Chemistry and Calculus Advanced Placement Exams. “I was like, I can do this, because I took the AP classes and they’re all College Board,” said Hardy.  

However, she was frustrated to find these tests failed to accurately represent what she had learned in her AP courses. “I did awful on them, and I think it hurt my chances at some schools because they just weren’t related to what I was learning in my classes.”

With the elimination of subject tests and the essay, more weight may be placed on an applicants curriculum and AP classes. “We do find that when students take a rigorous curriculum such as AP, that is a good preparation for Amherst,” McGann said. “High scores on those exams correlate with success in college. That is true in recent years, and will continue to be true as we try to get through more than 13,000 applications for first year admissions, and try to bring in a class that is not 13,000 people. We’re a small college, we have to make tough decisions, and we have to use all of the information we can,” he said. 

Above all, the purpose of Amherst’s admissions is to build the kind of community the college wants to build, McGann noted. Over these next three years, the Office of Admission and the Faculty Committee on the Admission and Financial Aid will continue to assess whether a test optional admission process best serves this mission, he said. 

The discontinuation of the SAT Subject Tests  may be a net positive, McGann said. “In many ways, [the College Board’s decision] has made it easier to achieve our goals in educational equity. By no longer considering a test that was more available to students with the most resources and privilege, this decision helps us to better achieve Amherst’s mission.”