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Understanding the impact of eliminating SAT Subject Tests

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By Nicole Pilar on January, 27 2021 | 8 minute read

On Tuesday, January 19th, the College Board organization announced that it was eliminating the SAT Subject Test program and SAT essay component this year (full statement here). Once this news hit the airwaves, legions of teenagers and their families were both breathing sighs of relief and confusion. But there is still a lot of confusion regarding why this happened and what it means for students. So let’s dive a little deeper.

When are these changes happening? 

The SAT Subject Tests are no longer being administered in the US effective immediately. Students who registered will have their testing fee refunded. 

International students will have the opportunity to take the exams in May and June of 2021. Any international student that does not want to take the exam can contact College Board for a refund. 


Why are these changes happening? 

So, Subject Tests have been marching to their slow death for a long time. Originally introduced in 1937, the SAT Subject Tests were required for admissions at several highly selective universities. Typically, these were tied to a student major (ie Math and Science SAT Subject Tests for engineering programs). 

However, starting in the early 2010s, there was pushback against their use in admissions. The University of California system stopped requiring them of applicants in 2012, and several highly selective schools have shifted from “requiring them” to “recommending them.” MIT was the final holdout until this past March when they stopped requiring or even considering subject tests for admissions.


Okay, so these tests have been around forever. Why did College Board make the change now?

As many parents know, registering for any College Board product costs a fair bit of money (in 1999, the test fee for the SAT was $23; it’s now doubled to $52). Structurally, the SAT Subject Tests were a losing revenue stream for College Board, and the COVID pandemic only made that fact more obvious. As fewer and fewer colleges required them, fewer students chose to take them. For the Class of 2017, only about 220,00 students elected to take the Subject Tests. 

Furthermore, more and more students didn’t see the point in taking a Biology Subject Test when they have an AP exam in Biology at the end of the year. Why pay money twice for the same information (not to mention the costs associated with sending the scores!)? Since College Board pays proctors to administer the exam, it didn’t make financial sense to continue the program when so few students took advantage of it. 


So what about students that have Subject Test scores?

While it’s too soon to tell, many schools will likely still welcome scores from students who have them under test-optional policies. The only change this presents is that students will not have the option of registering for the exam. Unless a university explicitly says they will not look at submitted SAT Subject Test scores, students should still consider sending the scores if the scores can benefit their application. 


So why is this a bad thing? Fewer tests sounds great!

While we at Collegewise are always in favor of fewer tests that students have to take, there are some populations that this announcement will negatively affect:

Homeschooled applicants

Typically, the admissions requirements for homeschooled applicants have been more test-heavy than traditional applicants. Subject tests were an accessible opportunity for homeschoolers to fulfill those requirements because subject tests were offered multiple times a year, and they were open for all. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of homeschooled students has sharply risen, so this announcement is likely to negatively impact thousands of students beyond what more recent data would suggest.

US applicants to universities abroad

The US doesn’t have a national exam unlike other countries, so, for US-based applicants to universities abroad, they were often required to show specific SAT Subject Test scores in areas related to their program of study. Since universities abroad are very test-heavy for admissions, it remains to be seen how they will adapt to this new subject test-free world. US-based students interested in international study should keep a close eye on the requirements for their universities of choice and reach out to the admissions offices for clarification. 

International applicants to US universities

Not every student overseas has access to AP exams, so students abroad would often take SAT Subject Tests to bolster their applications to US universities in subjects related to their major. With the loss of subject tests, international students will have fewer testing options available to them to complement their applications beyond a national exam and/or SAT/ACT exam.

Regardless, it’s important to remember that colleges by and large have worked to make the process of applying to college easier (some definitely faster than others!). We are hopeful that this will continue to remain the case as COVID continues to affect all students for the near future. 


But, they can just do the AP program right? It seems like every high school offers that.

Not quite. While College Board’s class of 2019 announcement trumpeted the growth of AP courses and the students who take them, there was no mention of the number of high schools that offer AP coursework. The most recent announcement regarding these numbers comes from a 2018 announcement suggesting that around 22,000 schools offer AP coursework. Assuming this is purely US school sites, that still leaves almost 20,000 schools without access to AP courses.

It is also to be noted that offering an AP program is not cheap. If a school wanted to offer the whole suite of AP coursework within a school, it would cost them conservatively between $127,000 to $184,000. This is hardly realistic during a time where schools are slashing budgets just to stay open given the toll COVID has taken on tax revenue around the US.  

Access to AP testing is also uneven since it is administered at the school-site by school-site staff. Traditionally, students would sign up for the May AP exams in the fall of that school year. For homeschool applicants, they would need to find a school site that is willing to host them, which is going to be more difficult in a post-COVID world due to concerns about infection. International schools, especially public ones, are more likely to offer the International Baccalaureate program or national curricular models, compounding access issues. 

The cost of AP exams is a barrier for many students. For US applicants, each exam costs a whopping $95 dollars and $125 for students based outside of the US. For AP Capstone courses (AP Research and Seminar), the cost rises to an insane $143. For students that are taking a full course load of 5 AP courses senior year, that comes out to at least a grand total of $475 for US students and $625 for international applicants for a test that students get to sit only once.

To add insult to injury, the College Board has the gall to only offer a $33 AP exam fee reduction for students that qualify as low income. In the same breath, they suggest the following:

To provide funding for AP Exams for low-income students, states and districts need to act to commit resources to support low-income student exam participation. Talk to your principal and/or administration to ensure a plan is in place to dedicate funding to subsidize students’ 2021 exams.

Districts across the US are facing debilitating budget cuts due to COVID-related revenue losses, so it is very likely that low-income students, who are disproportionately likely to be students of color, will face further headwinds to college access. 

When all of this is taken into account, it is easy to see why some in the education space refer to the College Board as the education’s Evil Empire or, at the very least, a very profitable non-profit.


Uh oh. I’m in one of those categories. What should I do?

So one of the things that the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us is that colleges will adapt when students do not have control over the situation. Students will not be punished for College Board’s decisions, or if their high school doesn’t offer AP curricula, or if they don't have access to those exams. 

Context is everything in college admissions, and applicants are evaluated in the context of their environment. Students should utilize additional information sections of their applications to make it clear if they were unable to take advantage of opportunities like AP exams due to finances. This is especially true for homeschooled or international applicants. 


Any last words?

If there is only one thing I would want students to take from this announcement, it's that, while the elimination of subject tests might seem like a big change, it’s really not. The fundamentals of college admissions remain largely the same. While one (albeit minor) piece of the process has been eliminated, it means that the other components only rise in importance. 

For example, students should still take classes that appropriately challenge themselves and do well in them, especially if they are shooting for highly selective colleges. They should consider sitting for an ACT or SAT exam (although we are likely to see test-optional policies stay in the post-COVID world). Students should still engage in their interests in ways that provide meaningful impact (my colleague Patti did a great post on this about activities in the time of COVID that should serve as some inspo). They should work to create relationships with the teachers and counselors they will ask to write letters of recommendation for them. They should create a balanced college list that doesn’t have too many colleges or too few options that are realistic.

If anything, this year has clarified what matters and what doesn’t. The elimination of SAT Subject Tests is one less thing for students to worry about and gives students the time back to fill their days in more meaningful ways.



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