Photo courtesy of The College Board
To take, or not to take the SAT optional essay: that has been the question for students approaching the college admissions process of standardized testing. This question, and the identical one about SAT Subject Tests, are now irrelevant with the January 2021 news that the College Board, the SAT’s parent company, has discontinued both of the testing options.
The essay was introduced in 2005, and was made optional in 2016; SAT subject tests have been offered since 1937 but were faced with years of declining demand. The SAT essay was an end-of-test optional section following the general SAT test, and the Subject Tests were separate examinations on specific academic subjects. These decisions are a major milestone on a journey of decreasing importance and relevance of standardized tests in college admissions; a journey dramatically accelerated by the pandemic’s effects on the ability to test and colleges’ use of tests. The SAT, and the separate ACT, dominate this traditional gateway industry to admissions.
“I chose to take the SAT over the ACT because I was more comfortable with the formatting and the timing of the test,” senior Matthew Mammalian said. “I chose to take the essay because… colleges are not paying much attention to the essay anymore so [it] can’t really hurt you.”
Although some would say it was a long time coming, the decision was a surprise in a year of endless changes for applicants. Domestic students who were signed up for Subject Tests have been automatically refunded, and international students will have two more eligible sessions to take them, this May and June. Those registered for the SAT essay will be able to take it until June 2021.
“The essay wasn’t terrible. It is more of a mental challenge than a writing challenge because after finishing a three hour test you are exhausted,” Mammalian said. “Thankfully I was able to take the SAT three times before the pandemic hit, each with essay.”
In official statements, the College Board explained the moves were due to “changing needs” of students, referencing specifically the increasing ability of students to write essays in college applications. Outside of corporate statements there seem to be many other confounding variables, but the College Board has strayed away from referencing finances, notably boasting past annual revenues of over $1 billion. However, many hint at declining financial viability due to declining popularity, especially with other test options, and pandemic inefficiencies of supplying and coordinating tests.
“For years, students have relied on [these tests] to impress their desired college, and to make money off of these tests is completely unethical, especially when it is basically required to even get into college,” Mammalian said. “I think the College Board would have continued to administer the subject tests had it not been for the pandemic. I think the decision was made solely based on the fact that colleges didn’t care about the tests as much this year because of availability to take them.”
Other than financial shifts, the pandemic has played a major part in complicating matters. The logistics behind testing, with hundreds of thousands of students delayed or unable to test completely, has hampered the system. The College Board has also explained that part of Subject Test cancellations was to reroute testing spaces for the more-valued general SAT test.
Pandemic difficulties have also collided with testing’s changing place in admissions. In recent years pre-pandemic standardized tests, especially the Subject Tests and Essay, have seen less and less use. These types of movements were exaggerated substantially this year when standardized tests became the focal point of a hastily adapting admissions process. With students’ ability to secure a test not guaranteed, hundreds of schools went either test-optional or test-blind.
“This year was special because a lot of schools went test-optional, and I believe that schools should stay that way,” Mammalian said. “I think that it should be treated as additional information but not as the primary statistic for students.”
The evolving and uncertain testing situation varied for seniors across the country, with many unable to test, or not comfortable enough with their rushed scores to submit them. But even with this year’s admissions application deadline cycle passing for the class of 2021, a spinning admissions world has started to pose new uncertainties for current juniors.
“Many colleges becoming test-optional has made me more relaxed knowing that even if my tests get cancelled, I would still have the chance to get into good schools,” junior Raha Moshasha said. “I took an SAT mid-quarantine, and am now planning on taking an ACT February 6th, and another SAT on March 13th. I am also…signing up for another ACT in April.”
More than 1,600 institutions went test-optional for the 2021 class cycle, and countless more are even extending that measure into coming years using the pandemic as a door-opener to a future of what is likely decreased testing importance; this trend is exemplified by the powerful Universities of California system which went test-optional for 2021, and 2022, but will be going test-blind, meaning they will not even consider tests, in 2023 and 2024. The move came partially because of a lawsuit from a group of minority student applicants suing that the tests inherently discriminate.
“I disagree with the college board’s decision to take away the essay and the subject tests, especially when some of the people from the same class had the opportunity to take it, and others didn’t,” Moshasha said. “Their sudden announcement ruined a lot of students’ plans, and wasted the time of students already studying for them. I was not considering taking the SAT essay… but I was planning on taking two SAT subject tests, Math 2 and Chemistry.”
Aside from COVID-19 restrictions and admissions implications, testing has increasingly seen declining credibility in past years. The racial and socioeconomic intersections of test scoring, as well as simple ideas about testing being an inaccurate qualifier, have lessened admissions importance.
“I think standardized testing is foolish. It doesn’t actually measure a students intelligence; it just measures a student’s ability to study for the test,” Mammalian said. “The fact that solely Math and English are tested is a flaw in the design because there are far more subjects than just those two.”
As studies report the inaccuracies and societal correlations within testing, fewer top institutions are prioritizing scores. A 2015 Inside Higher Ed study found that the lowest average SAT scores came from students below $20,000 in family income, and the highest from students above $200,000.
“Another factor that puts the test’s validity into question is accessibility to study materials such as study books, tutors, and instructional videos,” Mammalian said. “There is a wide range of socioeconomic classes across the country and people with more money are able to afford much better materials, often preparing them better for the test, and resulting in a higher score.”
This interaction of wealth and scoring, and the subsequent and interconnected pattern of race exposes a privileged side of admissions many universities are now trying to account more for. Though performance gaps surely result from many overlapping factors, studies like the Brookings Institutes 2020 report show the exaggerated differences, finding 59 percent and 80 percent of White and Asian students respectively beating the 530 math benchmark, but less than 25 percent and 33 percent of Black and Latino students respectively doing so.
“Standardized tests do not test students’ intelligence as much as they [do] test taking abilities,” Moshasha said. “I think the college admissions process is straying further away from testing, [and] students are focusing on their extracurriculars and other components of the admission process.”
While it may seem the College Board’s lessening standardized testing hold on admissions is a nightmare for the “not-for-profit,” the College Board has been growing in other testing areas. According to the College Board’s 2019 report over half of U.S. high school students have taken an AP exam, a new frontier for the company. The tests typically don’t play much of a role in college admissions, but influence students’ classes and credit opportunities.
“I don’t think very highly of the college board, I think they are very money oriented, and less interested in students’ well being,” Moshaha said. “Having full-length AP exams, after a year of virtual learning [with] less class time and a completely different learning environment seems absurd. Students are being charged the same money and are expected to know the full course.”
With a rapidly changing future, mixed opinions about testing and important changes among a pandemic, there is no certain future. The extent of testing within U.S. admission and education is an ongoing question.
“The College Board is a scam; it has almost entirely monopolized the college application process,” Mammalian said. “I think standardized testing can have a place in college admissions, but I think there should definitely be less of a focus on it. Cancelling subject tests was long overdue.”