The College Board Changes the Testing Game Again: Are Students Done Playing?


An array of students armed with graphing calculators and number two pencils cycle through schools every year ready to combat one of the largest factors in the college admissions process.

Elizabeth Alton

Since the 1920s, College Board’s standardized tests have been a rite of passage for high school students all around the country, but on January 20th the non-profit announced an abrupt mid-year change to their testing plan that has left students wondering what they should expect from standardized tests for the next few months.  The College Board disclosed that they are permanently discontinuing the SAT Subject tests and SAT essay, both non-mandatory exams that students can opt to sit for. These changes promise to be a turning point in standardized testing for high schoolers, and may be a catalyst for a new type of college admissions cycle with less of a focus on standardized tests.

The SAT subject tests were multiple choice tests on a variety of subjects including the sciences and history, which can’t be found on the SAT. The essay, while it has been optional for test takers over the past four years, was still required by some colleges to apply up until the exam’s elimination last week.

Although this sudden change has come as a surprise to the students who signed up to take the subject tests or the optional essay, this shift has been a few months in the making. Forbes estimated that due to canceled test dates last spring and fall, the College Board has lost as much as 200 million dollars in the form of over a million students who have been unable to sit for, and by proxy not pay for, their standardized tests. 

In the newsletter they sent out to college counselors at high schools across the country, the College Board directly correlated their decision to eliminate the subject tests with increased access to their AP (Advanced Placement) tests.

“The expanded reach of AP and its widespread availability for low-income students and students of color mean the SAT Subject Tests are no longer necessary for students to show what they know,”the College Board stated. “AP provides students rich and varied opportunities to showcase their knowledge and skills through college-level coursework.”

Just by reading their justification for eliminating the test you might think that the difference between AP tests and Subject Tests was just accessibility, but that’s simply not true. The main difference between the exams is that AP test is broadcasted as an opportunity to earn college credit, whereas subject tests are marketed as an opportunity to show college readiness. In fact, reputable college blogs Prepscholar and College Vine recommended that students take both types of exams in a single subject area, or that they take at least one SAT subject test in order to be competitive to top colleges. This in and of itself shows that the exams aren’t interchangeable, so increased accessibility of AP tests, while laudable, isn’t a clear expansion for the subject test’s elimination. 

Molly Porcher, WESS’s College Counselor, thinks that the decision to eliminate Subject Tests has more to do with students simply not signing up to take the tests. 

“The AP exam thing really just seems a cover for the fact that not that many people were taking the [SAT subject tests], and they need to focus resources and test sites to the SAT because of the pandemic,” Porcher said. “But, what they’re trying to say is that because more students are taking the AP exams, they don’t have to offer the Subject Tests as an alternative.”

There are clearly an assortment of long term consequences that will result from this decision but the short term isn’t to be ignored either. There were many students planning on taking the subject tests this year, including junior Jasmine Snachez. 

Last year, Sanchez  planned on taking the biology and world history subject tests, which were canceled due to COVID. This year she was planning on taking the Chemistry and English literature tests.

“I haven’t spent an extreme amount of extra time studying since I’m still learning the baseline curriculum for them in my classes, but it’s still rather frustrating because I was planning on using the tests to further my college application, since I’m primarily looking at schools that will consider them,” Sanchez said. 

Understandably so, Sanchez was a bit thrown off by the abrupt cancelling of the exams. 

“I definitely understand why they were cancelled, I just wish that they had waited until the summer or the start of a new school year as opposed to cancelling them effective immediately.”

In terms of long term consequences, this change has the potential to pivot a system already moving away from the College Boards main tests like the SAT due to the pandemic and their inequality further in that direction.

Standardized tests are inherently unfair. It doesn’t have anything to do with the tests themselves, by definition everyone takes the same test. It’s the preparation that some students have access to before the test that makes the difference. Students of a lower socio-ecoenomic status, who are also disproportionately minorities, score lower on the SAT than their peers. 

If the College Board hopes to increase their equity, maybe getting rid of redundant tests is a good first step, but it isn’t going to address the root of the issue.

In an attempt to take matters into their own hands, colleges have been going test optional and test blind either just during the pandemic, or in the long term. Back in May, California’s Universities Board eliminated the testing requirement to give them enough time to design a new test following the pandemic, a decision that very likely found its inspiration in a lawsuit from students and advocacy groups claiming the tests are unconstitutional due to their bias. Because of the pandemic around 1,600 schools have gone test blind, and around 500 have gone test optional. So with less students taking the SAT, and less funding as a result, it’s no surprise that the already optional subject tests were the first to go.

While the pandemic continues it’s hard to know exactly what the future of standardized tests looks like. Either way it’s clear that evolution and adaptation is inevitable in the circumstances we’re living through and the college admissions process is no exception to that.