by Ari Worthman, director of college counseling
Last month, I concluded my article about colleges’ test-optional policies by suggesting that students and families shift from asking, “Which tests should I take?” to, “Should I take any tests at all?” After the Jan. 19 announcement from the College Board that it has eliminated all SAT Subject Tests (one-hour exams in specific subject areas), effective immediately, it’s likely that a growing number of students will apply to colleges without any standardized testing.
Since the announcement, many families have asked what prompted this shift. Let’s look at some background.
If, like me, you applied to selective U.S. colleges during the final decades of the last century, this decision might be surprising. Back then, selective colleges required the ACT or SAT and three Subject Tests, including the Writing exam. (I vividly remember studying for the Subject Test in Writing. I learned about “misplaced modifiers,” the common, yet erroneous usages of “aggravate” and “irritate” as synonyms, and that saying a “period of time” is redundant — a “period” is, by definition, a span of time.) I think I studied more for the Writing Subject Test than the SAT itself. I took three Subject Tests — twice! Millions of students did. And the College Board saw a significant revenue stream from these exams.
I was relieved for students in 2005 when the College Board folded the Writing Subject Test into the SAT, eliminating the stand-alone exam entirely, and reducing colleges’ requirement to the ACT or SAT and only two (rather than three) SAT Subject Tests. Then, between 2015 and 2020, colleges began eliminating their Subject Test requirements in droves, explaining that more testing requirements create barriers to applying, especially for students from underserved backgrounds, and that the SAT Subject Tests proved to be poor predictors of academic success. As the number of colleges requiring these exams shrunk, so did the number of test-takers — as well as this revenue stream.
Prior to the pandemic, only two U.S. colleges required Subject Tests, and a few more “recommended them.” While the College Board doesn’t publicize its earnings by revenue stream, college and admissions counselors knew the profit margins on these tests couldn't be strong. Then, because of COVID, all colleges eliminated their SAT Subject Test requirement, and most stated they did not intend to reinstate it after the pandemic.
So, the simple answer to why the College Board eliminated Subject Tests is that few colleges valued them. Those that did failed to generate enough test-takers to make the tests profitable.
Thus, with the Subject Tests gone, the only remaining question is, “Should I take any tests at all?” While the College Board plans to shift emphasis to Advanced Placement (AP) exams, this will unlikely impact admissions decisions, only course placement and credits earned towards a college degree. While some media pundits speculate that colleges might replace Subject Tests with APs, my admissions colleagues fervently disagree. After all, if colleges saw value in AP results in evaluating applications, they would have implemented such policies long ago, especially as they eliminated Subject Test requirements. And thousands of high schools nationwide do not offer AP exams, which would create a significant barrier to applying — enough to shrink applicant pools in an era focused on growing them.
What’s left, therefore, is applying with the ACT or SAT, or no tests at all.
While this new landscape might feel unsettling, Lakeside’s college counselors will work individually with each 11th grader in answering this question. Before then, we recommend that sophomores and juniors participate in our annual mock ACT and PSAT, which will help them gain familiarity with the exams and help the counselors guide students in deciding which tests, if any, to take.
On a final and different note, I want to introduce a new member of the college counseling team! Starting Monday, Erin Foster will join our team as a college counselor. She comes to us from Washington University in St. Louis (Wash U), where she served as assistant director of undergraduate admissions. As the admissions officer who reviewed Lakeside’s applications for years, Erin understands firsthand how to compellingly articulate the caliber of Lakeside’s students and academic program. Moreover, during her annual recruiting visits to Lakeside, she demonstrated a remarkable ability to connect with students. We are delighted to have her join our team! Learn more about Erin on the college counseling “meet the team” webpage.
Ari Worthman is Lakeside’s director of college counseling. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.