College Board cancels Subject Tests; millions rejoice

Despite the hopes of many, all of the world’s problems were not immediately solved when the calendar flipped from 2020 to 2021. It’s fair to say, however, that multiple signs point to the fact that things are at least heading in a more encouraging direction. Early reports from Washington indicate that the new administration is committed to confronting the COVID pandemic with, you know, science. The inauguration brought innumerable outstanding Bernie Sanders memes. And, most importantly, the College Board has announced that Subject Tests are finally dead: all domestic administrations are cancelled, and the tests will no longer be administered moving forward.

What are Subject Tests, and why do I care?

If you’re not familiar with SAT Subject Tests… well, first of all, lucky you. These one-hour multiple-choice tests have been a part of the college admissions process since the mid-1900s, when they were known as ‘Achievement Tests’. Each one tested students on their knowledge of a specific academic area, ranging from Latin to Chemistry to World History.

The tests were intended to supplement the general SAT by allowing students to showcase their expertise in areas not assessed on the standard test. Unfortunately, they quickly transformed from “opportunities to show off knowledge” into “mandatory scores without which a student’s college application wouldn’t be considered,” with some schools requiring the submission of as many as four Subject Test scores.

There were a myriad of problems with this. On a macro level, this requirement represented yet another stressor in a college admissions process already replete with them. Many people argued that it also presented one more barrier to entry for students from under-resourced backgrounds, as they were less likely than their more privileged counterparts to be prepared for such specialized tests. And on a micro level, the cancelled Subject Tests… what’s the phrase I’m looking for… weren’t good?

Imagine trying to create a one-hour test that covers the history of the entire world. It’s impossible to come close to reviewing all that material even in a year-long course, which is why different teachers choose to approach it by focusing more on specific elements and less on others. Because of this, crafting a standardized test that accounts for the differences in curriculum and quality of instruction is essentially a fool’s errand.

For context, consider how hard it is for the general SAT to test math and English in a way that’s somewhat standardized across the numerous school districts throughout America—not to mention international schools. Now, multiply that by about a million. The result was scoring scales that were often comically skewed: on one World History practice test, students could get a raw score of 75/95 (dropping more than a fifth of the available points, if math isn’t your thing) and still get a perfect scaled score of 800.

Adding to these problems with the tests themselves was the expansion of the Advanced Placement (AP) program in recent years, which rendered the Subject Tests increasingly redundant. The result of all this was a de-emphasis of the tests in the admissions process, with most schools making them optional and some refusing to consider the scores at all. When viewed in that context, College Board’s decision to cancel Subject Tests becomes less of a surprising announcement and more of an acknowledgement of the writing that’s been on the wall for some time.

So what’s the upshot of Subject Tests being cancelled?

  • The cancellation of Subject Tests is effective immediately for domestic students. If you were registered to take a Subject Test in May and/or June, your registration will automatically be cancelled and your registration fee refunded.
  • International students will still be able to take the tests in May and/or June; no additional administrations will be offered after June 2021.
  • College Board also reaffirmed their commitment to developing a digitally-delivered version of the general SAT, something that they tried and failed to do on a very tight timetable last year in response to the worsening of the COVID pandemic. This more flexible version of the SAT is intended to reduce demands on students and streamline the testing portion of the admissions process; this is the same motivation that the CB is using to explain their cancelling Subject Tests.
  • Demand is likely to increase for AP classes and their corresponding exams going forward as students look for new ways to distinguish themselves from the pack during the college admissions process. Coincidentally enough, the AP program is also run by College Board; I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions about their true motivations for cancelling Subject Tests, dear reader.
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