College Board will no longer offer SAT Subject Tests

On Jan. 19, 2021, the College Board eliminated the SAT Subject Tests used in college admissions, citing an undue burden on students already struggling with the COVID pandemic and the more widespread availability of AP exams. 

Compared to the 1.8 million high school students who took the SAT in 2017 and 1.17 million who took AP tests, only 219,000 took the subject tests.  Part of this is due to subject tests no longer being required by the University of California system since 2012, leading hundreds of other colleges to follow their lead. 

“The number of colleges and universities requiring Subject Tests was rapidly declining pre-pandemic and was essentially zero in the current admissions cycle,” said Robert Schaeffer, interim executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.  “After significant revenue losses from multiple rounds of test cancellations over the past 10 months, it made no financial sense to continue trying to pitch its ever-less-popular products.”  

In Sept. 2020, Forbes estimated that the College Board, whose most recently available tax filing in 2018 showed revenue of $1 billion, had already lost $200 million from canceled SAT tests.  That number has probably grown since then.

The College Board’s announcement suggests that eliminating subject tests may expand admission opportunities for disadvantaged students, as their AP exams cover the same material as subject tests and are widely available for “low-income students and students of color.”  However, the subject tests are only an hour long and only cost $48 in contrast to AP exams lasting over three hours and costing $95 (reduced to $53 for low-income students).  African-American and Hispanic students have also scored relatively lower than Asian and Caucasian students on AP tests, calling into question how relying on them is supposed to lead to more equitable results.

Reactions to the College Board’s decision have been varied.  James Malone, a high school counselor at Garden City Public Schools in New York, says that “to me, they serve a purpose for those students who have a particular strength and want to illustrate their talent in an objective way.”

In contrast, Katie Burns, a Master Admissions Counselor at Ivy Wise, a company that consults with students on admissions, as well as a former Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at MIT, argues that “while Subject Tests have helped students to show talent and mastery in a particular subject when perhaps they earned a lower grade in the actual class or did poorly on the AP test, I have not found the subject tests to be very predictive of a student’s aptitude or potential for success in a particular subject.  [Instead,] the grade they are earning in the class day in and day out, from doing the work, taking care of business, preparing for quizzes and tests, those grades speak much more volumes about a student’s work ethic and potential than one 60-minute multiple-choice test.”

Students have also expressed conflicting views.  “Subject tests aren’t the best way to go about showing proficiency,” says Julia Liu, a senior who has taken multiple subject tests, AP exams, as well as sitting for the SAT.  “It assumes you follow their version of the curriculum and, if not, you have to do a lot of self-study.”  Despite this, she acknowledges that it does provide “a standardized way to evaluate students against each other, given that not all schools offer AP classes, but they do have generic math or bio classes, for example.”

Students currently registered for subject tests in the US will have their registration canceled and fees refunded.  International students will have the opportunity to take the subject tests through June 2021, because they are “used internationally for a wider variety of purposes, such as advanced standing/placement at universities and local credential equivalences for entering colleges and/or as credentials for international students planning to study in some countries,” according to the College Board.