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What Do the Newest Changes to the SAT Mean For College Admissions?

Authored By: 
Krista Sergi, Director of College Guidance

In a recent article, the College Board announced that it is no longer offering SAT Subject Tests or the SAT with Essay. Having worked in college admissions and as a high school counselor, I feel both relief and disappointment. Before I get into my feelings, however, I need to contextualize this a bit.


Removing SAT Subject Tests May Level the Playing Field

The SAT Subject Tests are, as the name suggests, subject-specific exams that allow students to demonstrate advanced skills and knowledge in a particular subject area such as Biology, Physics, English Literature, etc. In my experience, these tests were required by more selective schools, including the Ivies and Ivy-laterals (Duke, MIT, Georgetown, etc.) and suggested by other selective schools (e.g., Lafayette or Bryn Mawr) as a way for students to distinguish themselves amidst a pool of other highly-qualified applicants.

From an access and equity standpoint, I have never been a fan of any of the college entrance exams. I have worked in public, independent, and charter schools, and my experience has shown me that preparation for these exams is far from equal. And I’m not just talking about the obvious socioeconomic disparities that result in various levels of preparedness—I’m talking about the myriad additional factors that affect a student’s ability to prepare and perform well, including:

  • Parental history with/knowledge of the exam
  • Sibling history with the exam (first child to take it vs. second or third)
  • School-based prep options vs. public prep options
  • Whole class prep vs. individual prep opportunities

In their blog, the College Board says that they are focusing more on AP classes and course selection overall to determine a student’s skill, which is why I feel some relief. This situation puts the agency back in the hands of the student and the counselor, as opposed to determining skill based partly on how a teenager does on a single test at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning in May or November.  


SAT Subject Tests vs. AP Test Scores - An Equity Issue?

Other questions this brings up, however, are availability of AP classes and timeline of testing. Traditionally, colleges evaluate students within the context of their education. If a school offers AP U.S. History (APUSH), AP English Literature, and AP Calculus, then a student who is applying to Harvard would be expected to take all three, while a student applying to Sarah Lawrence for English wouldn’t necessarily need to take AP Calc, and a student applying to Manhattan College for math could choose between AP Lit and APUSH with little effect on the application. But then how do these students measure up against a student attending a large prep school with 10 AP course options? This also doesn’t address a typical high schooler’s timeline—unlike the SAT Subject exams, which were offered at multiple points during the school year, AP exams are only offered in May. If we use the scenario above, most students would take APUSH during eleventh grade and AP Lit and/or AP Calc in twelfth grade. This creates a case in which the students applying from that school may only be able to send scores for one exam.  

These questions are hotly debated and once again bring me back to the topic of equity. Am I relieved about doing away with the Subject Exams? You bet I am. Am I worried this is going to cause a trend where students randomly take AP exams during eleventh grade without having taken the course or fill up on courses and work themselves into a pit of stress and anxiety? Yes, I am.


Potential Impacts of Losing the SAT Essay Option

As for the essay, I feel let down. Granted, I am a former English teacher so perhaps I am biased, but I thought the essay was the one piece of the SAT that was a bit more equitable. The College Board’s reasons for tossing it are sound—they feel there are many more relevant opportunities for students to showcase their writing through their applications, and the majority of colleges weren’t requiring the essay anyway. I, however, was saddened by this because I feel like the SAT essay captures a student’s raw voice. As the parents of our twelfth-grade students can attest, I work with every one of my students before they submit their college personal statements and supplemental essays. When we submit them, they are undoubtedly in my students’ unique voices, but it is a polished voice. It demonstrates the best of what my students can do. I liked the SAT essay because it provided a balance. A discerning admissions representative could compare the writing in the application to the writing on the SAT to determine how well a student writes in the moment vs. after editing, and of course, it allows for an authenticity check. In the wake of the scandals at USC and other major colleges, I feel that we have lost a very important verification point that made the playing field just a bit more equal. Only time will tell, I suppose.

While I wish I could be your oracle in this matter, I sadly do not know what the future will bring. What I do know is that knowledge is power, and making our students aware of the landscape will always be my priority.