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Who wins and loses with the College Board’s cancellation of the SAT essay and subject tests?

The decision is not exactly a surprise. Here’s what to know.

Who wins and loses with the College Board’s cancellation of the SAT essay and subject tests?
[Photo: Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu/Unsplash]
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This week the the College Board dropped big news: The SAT Subject Tests are gone. Forever! Starting immediately! Also gone is the optional SAT essay, which will disappear this June. Sayonara!

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The nonprofit College Board’s explanation—which is flimsy—is that the cancellations reflect that students now can demonstrate their abilities in other ways, particularly via the proliferation of Advanced Placement (AP) classes and exams.

What’s actually happening here?

The College Board also produces the AP exams. This is the equivalent of an auto company discontinuing a struggling model, and encouraging customers toward its sister model. Subject Test registrations were down 8% from 2016-2019, and plummeted amidst the pandemic. The Board did not note this.

Is this a surprise?

Many colleges had long ago let students decide whether to take Subject Tests, but the test results were still frequently used for freshman course placement, or to fulfill language requirements. For students, the Subject Test cancellation is immediate and sudden: Refunds are available for kids already registered for winter and spring tests. There were 20 subject tests in science, history, math, English, science, and languages.

Who wins?

  • Kids with access to AP classes, for whom SAT Subject Tests doubled their test burden.
  • Class of 2022 and 2023 students who were overstressed about how to take tests amid pandemic seating limitations.

Who loses?

  • Excellent essayists who would hit the essay section out of the park, and use it to prove to admissions teams that they could write cogent (albeit formulaic) essays in 50 minutes without an adult editor.
  • Students at the 2,000 U.S. high schools without AP curricula, and the many other schools with limited AP course options.
  • Home schoolers who want to demonstrate mastery beyond an A+ from Mom.

What type of student is this a nightmare for?

Subject Tests were known as a backdoor way for students to study for a few weeks and do well on an exam, and bolster an application. For example, a bright kid could study a Biology Subject Test guide book and ace the test—without taking advanced high school biology. This was useful to low-income kids without access to good courses, as well as to not-academically-motivated kids who blanched at taking an AP course but could be compelled to take a test.