Are SAT Subject Test Scores A Sinking Ship?

As more and more schools drop their SAT Subject Test requirement, it seems like almost nobody is interested in the exams anymore, perhaps least of all the College Board. Students aiming for uber-selective schools, however, probably still need to take them.

UPDATE (4/5/18):  Harvard has changed its policy from require to recommend.  Its old policy read, “While we normally require two SAT Subject Tests, you may apply without them if the cost of the tests represents a financial hardship or if you prefer to have your application considered without them.” 

Its new policy reads, “While we recommend that you submit two SAT Subject Tests, you may apply without them if the cost of the tests represents a financial hardship or if you prefer to have your application considered without them.”  It remains the case that we believe students should submit strong Subject test scores in order to be considered seriously by Harvard College, but this relaxation in policy provides further evidence that Subject tests may be going the way of the dodo.

UPDATE (3/26/18):  The Webb Institute has dropped its Subject test requirement.  There are now 3 schools that require Subject tests of all students.

Last week, Tufts University announced that it was dropping its SAT Subject test requirement.  That brings us down to 3 US schools–Cal Tech, Harvey Mudd, and MIT–that require all students to submit subject test scores.  All four schools place a heavy emphasis on engineering, so it is no surprise that they want to see how students perform on more rigorous STEM tests.

But they also enroll a tiny portion of the 200,000+ students who took Subject tests.  Between the three of them, the schools received about 32,000 applications in 2016, and they enrolled just shy of 1,600 students altogether.  The vast majority of those applications went to MIT, which, unsurprisingly, also enrolled about two-thirds of the students in the group.

In addition to the three STEM schools that require all students to submit subject test scores in math and science, Cooper Union and Cornell require Subject tests of a large portion of their applicants.  So five US schools broadly require subject tests.  Five.

Twenty other schools “recommend” Subject tests to a substantial number of applicants, particularly STEM applicants.   What to make of that recommend is a maddening question.  Students and families in the know typically treat that recommendation as a requirement, but students who lack strong counseling, especially students who are the first in their family to apply to college, may interpret the recommendation as, well, just a recommendation.  It would be good for colleges who recommend the submission of Subject test scores to be more transparent about the role the tests play in their admissions process.

Only the schools in red below broadly require subject tests. Click the plus sign for more details.

At any rate, many students are getting the message that they do not need the Subject tests, as this chart shows.  While the number of SAT-takers has grown in the past decade, the number of Subject test-takers has shrunk after years of growth.

The collapse in Subject test-takers has been particularly acute for the language exams, but the number of students taking the Math 1 exam has also collapsed.

The STEM Subject tests have held on the most, and Math 2 has been the most frequently taken test for several years now.

All this raises questions about the future of Subject tests.  Will the College Board continue to support the exams when so few schools are interested in them?  Two years ago, during a Q&A at the NACAC national convention in Columbus, the Princeton Review’s Director of National Outreach, James Murphy, asked the CEO of the College Board, David Coleman, when the company would revise the Subject tests to align them with the SAT.  Subject test questions have five answer choices; the SAT has four. Students lose a quarter point for wrong answers on the Subject tests; there is no guessing penalty on the SAT.  Coleman paused and replied, “That’s a good question.”  And said nothing more.  When pressed, he said that they needed to think about the Subject tests, given the expansion of AP testing.

It was a cryptic remark, whose meaning has now become clearer.  Little did we know then that the College Board would be launching an ambitious plan to make deeper incursions into the high school curriculum.  While the College Board’s tests have traditionally examined students on the material they have learned in high school, the College Board increasingly wants to determine what that material is and then test students on it.   Next year, 100 schools will implement a pre-AP curriculum for ninth graders; the College Board will expand the program each year after. There will be pre-AP courses in Algebra 1, Bio, English, World History, and Visual and Performing Arts.

When Murphy asked at a regional College Board Forum whether the pre-AP Bio and pre-AP World History courses would prepare students for the Subject tests, a College Board representative said they were not designed to do so. The pre-AP curriculum will be more narrow than the traditional high school curriculum and go deeper. Subject tests, she acknowledged, take a broad and shallow approach to curriculum. The focus of the College Board is clearly on the AP and pre-AP program, not on Subject tests.

Subject tests, we learned at the same meeting, are not going to get an update until 2022 at the soonest. It is difficult to imagine that the language exams will continue to exist, and the history and literature exams might be eliminated as well. The STEM exams seem likely to survive since Engineering programs want to see students’ performance at a higher level than the SAT or ACT can assess, but as more and more schools say goodbye to the Subject tests, it is now possible to imagine the College Board will do the same.


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